Don Lotter Africa Blog

July 2015 - I've been back at my job at St. John's University since March.  I'm transitioning over to Facebook for much of my updates.  My Facebook page with recent work.  Many problems at the university here.  Regional electricity outages are costing a huge amount for running the generator.  No water in much of the university.  Government not delivering promised educational loans to students, which the university depends on.

Looking into biochar for next research project.

October 2014. I am on leave in the US getting domestic issues in order.  Recent papers are here.

August 2012 I received small funding from Australia to start a biomass gasifying stove project. These stoves will transition Africa away from cutting all of their trees for charcoal and firewood. See my Research and Teaching blog
We have finished the survey of African Indigenous Vegetable Production and Marketing and I'm in the process of crunching the data.
I am starting a program of Online Education at SJUT. See my Research and Teaching blog for more on this. Online education has a big future for Africa.

January 2012 - Research projects:
1) Biomass-gasifying pyrolytic stove project (see below)
2) Research survey "Socio-economic impacts of a sand dam project" (see below for blog entry and pics);
3) Follow-up survey of African indigenous vegetable development - a USAID/HortCRSP project;

Biomass-gasifying pyrolytic stove project - Eric Reynolds, with whom I grew up in Davis, has moved to Rwanda and initiated quite simply the most exciting project I have yet seen in Africa - introducing the pyrolytic stove via a "social business" model (not a handout, it's a business). Read my PowerPoint presentation on the Pyrolytic Stove and about Eric's Inyenyeri Stove Project written up by one of the New York Times top blogs (Nick Kristoff).
Here at St. John's University, we need to find funding to introduce the stove to Tanzania - first needs are tools to start a demonstration/research program: 1) small hammer mill ($450), 2) small pelletizer ($850), 3) demo stoves (done!), 4) a volunteer who can help coordinate this project!

University development projects:
1) Developing a system for "Scantron" type automated grading via scanner - Scantron is too expensive so we are buying PrintScanScore ( - we have classes of 900 students and no TA's to grade the written exams - my colleagues are each spending about 75 hours (!) grading the written exams - when they assigned me one of these classes for next semester I said to myself "No way am I going to hand grade 900 written exams" - so I researched automated grading and showed an evaluation of it - everyone is begging me to implement it to free them from the mind-numbing task of hand grading - I never used multiple choice exams in my teaching in California, but with classes of 800+ and no TA's, it's the only way to go - assessment of student learning will be better because more exams can be given, and hand grading 400+ essay exams dulls the mind so much that any creativity by the student is not recognized and assessment is poor. 2) Other projects: Migrating IDS faculty to MS Outlook email (so that they check their email more than once a week; e-book access for the SJUT library

March 2011 - I've started a faculty position at St. John's University of Tanzania, in Dodoma (central Tanzania).  Pictures - Dodoma 2011.

 March 2011 - Finishing work with Mennonite Central Committee on sand dams for villages outside of Dodoma.  See the Sand Dam Blog I did on the project.  There is a link to a Google Earth view, plus slide shows. My work is on tree and grass planting for erosion control around the dams and on working with villagers on their crops.

 February 2011 - I gave a talk at the ECHO East Africa Conference on Sustainable Agriculture: Integrated Pest Management for Low Input Vegetable Production in East Africa.  Uploaded to Youtube for the conference participants.

 January 2011 - I am in Dodoma, Tanzania on a two month contract to work with the Mennonite Central Committee on sand dams for village water supply. 

 December 2010 - My Dad, brother Mike, and Mike's partner Beth came for two weeks.  Dad is 86 years old!  Here are photos of the visit that Beth took.

November 2010 - I am finishing up my one year volunteer position with Food Water Shelter Pics of  year 2010 with FoodWaterShelter Arusha here. 

 Transitioning to paid work with a couple of US-funded NGOs - Global Service Corps and Fintrac, on linking small-scale vegetable farmers to markets.  This will start in January.  

I've just had published an article Making connections to healthy soils, sustainable agriculture in East Africa. In Biocycle magazine. 

  June 2010 The organic vegetable farm has been a success, with a great response from people in Arusha, mostly expats but also about 15% local higher income Tanzanians.  Demand exceeds supply.  Pesticides that are banned in the US and Europe are used here by even the smallest farmers of vegetables.  Many people want food that hasn’t been sprayed with these things.  The myth still goes around that when you see peasant women selling veggies in the market, that they are unsprayed.  Many of the indigenous veggie crops are unsprayed, like the African nightshade greens, Amaranth greens etc.  Incidentally, it was the Mayan people in Guatemala who introduced me to nightshade greens – now one of my favorite vegetables – great nutritional benefits.  North Americans and Europeans still don’t grow it. 

 I’m now starting to look at what to do next year.  I will need a paying job.  I may stay here if I can get something.  I don’t limit myself to organic farming.

 I lost my main farm manager and had to pick up Swahili much faster than I had planned.  I now manage the farm 90% of the time in Swahili.  Growing a wide range of vegetable crops organically here can be a challenge.  Disease and insects have hit my tomatoes and cucurbit crops pretty hard, and we can't get the old-standby organic sprays like Bt for insects and the Bordeaux mixes for fungal diseases.  So I've been trying different biologicals - neem, chili and garlic, turmeric, compost teas, and milk, to name a few. 

Anyone who has had success with controlling insects and disease in humid with locally available compounds, please let me know the recipes.

The NGO that I volunteer for, foodwatershelter (no caps, one word) is dynamic and young and I think is doing a great job.  The young Australians with whom I live are fun and flexible, putting up with my oldness and occasional grouchiness quite well.  Concomitantly, I put up with such unspeakably atrocious habits not rinsing dishes after washing with soap (and they're a wine country! but I suppose it's reflective of being from a water scarce land) and pronouncing the simple word "no" as if they're being tortured (something like "naaaarrrrrgggghhhhhh".

I'm going to Dar for the SabaSaba trade show in July and to try and once-and-for-all get my long-term volunteer visa.  I will finish the trip with some vacation time on the coast at a camping resort where I will watch the last 4-5 days of the World Cup soccer.  People tell me that Peponi Resort in Pangani is good for budget travelers like me.  Any ideas out there on where to go?

                The Story of a Long Lost Song, Found 37 Years Later.  I have to tell this story.   Back in my hitchhiking days, it was 1973, in northern South Africa, I was picked up by a family – the Mullers (Max and Anne Muller, Etienne Muller, Joanne Muller, they now live in Ireland I believe), and taken to their farm, where I stayed for a month (some pics from those days are on the family album, linked below).  They had music LPs and one of them was by a guy named Rodriguez, an unknown American from Detroit.  On that album was a hauntingly beautiful song – Sugar Man. After getting back to the States I looked for that song every once in a while but finally gave up by the 1990s. Rodriguez was and is still unknown in the US.  Then a couple of weeks ago one of my Australian colleagues put on a mix of music in the lounge area we share – and there it was – Sugar Man.  I knew it immediately, even 37 years later.  I had been searching for “Candy Man” all those years and so couldn’t find it.  It turns out that in South Africa and Australia, Rodriguez has always had a following.   I’ve taken the liberty to put up Sugar Man for you to hear, recorded in Detroit in 1970, in its original raw form.  His music is now available on Amazon.  I figure some people will buy the album so I think it’s alright to put up the song.

Addendum:  Well, he's now been rediscovered by popular culture and has had a movie made about him - see NY Times article about Searching for Sugar Man. I guess I'm not the only one who never forgot that hauntingly beautiful album he put out in 1969 before disappearing.

 March 2010 - In my 4th month.  Starting an organic vegetable farm from scratch.   Google Earth view here.

 December 2009 - I will be working as Permaculture Farm Manager at the Food Water Shelter Demonstration Farm outside of Arusha.  FWS is an Australian NGO.

 In October I did a consulting gig in Tanzania for the US NGO Farmer to Farmer, advising farmers on their production of vegetable crops.  I decided to come back to live here.  Below is my newsletter.

 Start of Blog: October 2009 newsletter from my one-month Farmer to Farmer assignment in Tanzania

Hello friends - I am on a month-long volunteer project in Tanzania with  the Farmer-To-Farmer organization, a US NGO.  I'm based in Arusha and get  driven out to farming areas around Mt. Meru, where the farmers, all very  small-scale, grow cool-season crops at the high altitudes there (snow and  sugar-snap peas, string beans, baby carrots).  The crops are destined for  the European market, something that I hesitated about, as flying produce  from the equator to Europe is not sustainable in the long-term due to the  high carbon footprint .  However, I really needed something like this to  get a break from the miserable job situation in California.  Plus, these  farmers, all small-scale and whose land holdings average less than an  acre, are determined to make some cash from connecting to this market.  The east African markets are too poor for them to make any money.  A few  locally-owned export companies have formed here and have given the farmers  a framework, very strict rules, to produce.  It's not organic, but the  farmers don't do any of the spraying - a spray manager is trained by the  export company so that the rigorous European standards can be adhered to.  The farmers have formed co-ops in order to deal with the need to scale up  for export.


I have been teaching them about green manure crops (cover cropping) and  ecological pest management.  They have responded much more positively than  I had thought they would.  They have only been farming like this for a  generation or so, formerly having done nomadic livestock herding and  shifting cultivation, neither of which are viable any more given  population growth, so they do need help with maintaining and building soil  fertility and arthropod (insect) stability.  Their soils are really low in  organic matter due to over a decade of chemical fertilizer use with  inadequate organic matter inputs.


Pictures at


The last time I was in Arusha was in 1966 when I was 13 years old, when we  were on safari from Peace Corps staffing in Malawi.  Arusha has now grown  30-fold and is unrecognizable.  All that us Lotter boys remember about  Arusha is that two east Indian merchants had an ice cream store that made  chocolate milk shakes, and as I recall (possibly unreliably), hamburgers.  This was just the greatest thing in the world for us boys.  We drove  through all of the game parks, camped, were chased by rhinos and  elephants, bitten by scorpions (Scott), broke down in the bush and rescued  by a "great white hunter" and taken to his camp, which was invaded by a  pride of lions the night after we left (all in my mom's book To Africa  With Spatula, check it out on Amazon).  I have been able to see some  animals on the way to one of my farming areas, in pictures above.


More pics of the Lotters in Africa 1965-67 at Scroll down.  It's a large family album, the Africa pics are down a little  ways.


A couple of observations about East Africa in general.  Almost everything  malfunctions here - it's the norm - whether it's electricity or Internet  or hotel room stuff or scheduling trips or agricultural production -  everything except, and it's a big "except", the way people relate to each  other (and to mzungus like me), and that pretty much makes up for all of  the malfunctions.  This is something that most journalists are not aware  of, it's not something that is clearly observable, it just has to be felt  over years of coming here.


The other thing is the really astounding effect of Barack Obama on the  people here.  You hear his name mentioned by everyone from four year olds  in villages to old people (in Swahili, most people don't speak English  here).  I was having some tailoring done by one of the front-porch tailors  you see all over Africa (guys with treadle machines who rent a little  space on the porch of a shop).  The guy didn't speak but two words of  English and was from the interior, the bush.  When I told him in my tiny  bit of Swahili that I'm from California United States, I saw that it  didn't register, so I said "Obama my president".  They guy's eyes  immediately lit up and he said "America!" and shook my hand.  I'm  accustomed to saying "United States" because in Latin America, the word  "America" signifies both of the western hemisphere continents and is a  touchy subject there.  In Africa, "America" is the common word for United  States.