Who: Don Lotter talking about his work in Tanzania
When: 7 p.m. Thursday
Where: International House, 10 College Park
The issues associated with Africa’s food security, environmental protection and educational system cannot be solved by any one person alone.
Good thing Don Lotter, 61, has the ear of hundreds of students in Tanzania’s capital in his mission to do just that. And it was a local upbringing that preceded his perspective abroad, as he attended Davis High and earned a doctorate at UC Davis.
It was in 1964, at the age of 12, that his parents took him along on a Peace Corps trip to southeast Africa’s Republic of Malawi. He said it was during that time that he “bonded with Africa,” a connection that has drawn him back many times.
For the past four years, he’s been a professor at the St.John’s University of Tanzania in the city of Dodoma. At the school, which is funded by meager student fees, he earns a Tanzanian’s salary, not an expatriate’s.
Concurrent with his teaching are his projects, the first of which provides an alternative to the 500 million trees that are cut down every year to be used as charcoal. A majority of Africa’s population use the wood-based cooking fuel.
And with the country’s population growth still the highest in the world, at five children per family, the production of this charcoal isn’t slowing down.
“People in Africa are very conservative about changing the way they do things,” Lotter said. “They’re used to cooking with charcoal. … The problem is that it’s from trees.”
The impetus for Lotter’s project was Eric Reynolds. The pair grew up together in Davis, from kindergarten through high school, and Reynolds had moved to Rwanda to start a project to transition to fuel-efficient, low-pollution stoves.
Reynolds’ approach involved condensing agricultural biomass waste, like corn cobs and material pruned from trees, into small pellets that the stoves would use as cooking fuel. Lotter was inspired by it, and thought to replicate it in Tanzania.
Lotter sought research funding to simulate the production of the biomass pellets by purchasing mills and hand presses that would make the briquettes.
“We don’t have to succeed as a business, we just want to have some of the figures prepared for entrepreneurs to have a business model,” Lotter said. “We just want to test and develop it.”
But he admits that investing in such an endeavor could be costly in Tanzanian currency, at least an equivalent of $100,000. He expects it will be profitable once charcoal prices double, as they have in previous years.
Another project he began last year is funded by Horticulture CRSP, a collaborative research support program at UCD. It’s a study of using neem trees as a pest repellent, because the oil in the seed of the plant is a naturally occurring insecticide.
“Neem trees were planted 30 years ago all over the region, and they’re completely unused,” Lotter said. “And so I want to start harvesting the seed, and see if they can start to be used as a replacement for pest control.”
Right now, he explained, when farmers have problems with insects, they go to the local agriculture store and buy insecticides that are banned in America because of their toxicity to humans. This project hopes to curb the use of these products.
Also agriculture-related is a project that’s intended to address the drought-susceptible region’s crop failures. It’s part of an answer to the fear that about 87 percent of Africa’s population will not have access to food by 2050.
Already, up to 60 percent of households in Dodoma are food-insecure. And though sorghum and millet, traditional African crops, would fare better in a drought, Tanzanians favor corn as the primary crop.
But much of the corn cropland also suffers soil loss due to rainfall-caused erosion. The solution to this problem, Lotter says, is to not till the fields and to use herbicide to keep a layer of dead grass intact.
So after 30 years of promoting sustainable agriculture, Lotter’s risk-benefit analysis has him now proposing that small- and medium-size farms use herbicides for a zero-tillage approach.
“Now, I’m not saying they should take up genetically modified crops,” he said. “I’m expecting people to break out the chainsaws and ask me some tough questions about the decision to use herbicides. Believe me, I’ve asked them of myself.”
His findings were doubled yields of the crops and tripled financial returns, due to reduced labor costs from not tilling the fields. But as with each of his projects, it’s going to take increased awareness to have an impact.
“I review a lot of these things with my students, which I have a lot of,” Lotter said. “Then they go back to all parts of Tanzania and spread the knowledge.”
But Lotter has found his outreach to students to be unique in a country that operates on an educational foundation that he described as dismal.
He spoke of teaching bachelor’s degree graduates whose reading comprehension levels are too low to assign even so much as a chapter of community college textbooks and expect them to be read.
A major contributor, he said, is that Tanzanian teachers sometimes skip class, leaving the students — from elementary to college-age — to fend for themselves.
Furthermore, instead of mobile phones and access to the Internet providing better opportunities for learning, he said the new technology is often used as a tool for students to pay teachers to get a passing grade.
His solution would be the redistribution of America’s foreign aid to building improved schools.
“I’m a little pessimistic about how things are going,” Lotter said. “But Africans are very pleasant to live with, and they’re a welcoming people. That’s what I bonded with when I was little. You’ve just gotta be comfortable with chaos.”
— Reach Brett Johnson at [email protected] or 530-747-8052. Follow him on Twitter at @ReporterBrett