Christian Non-profit Empowers Families Worldwide by Teaching Small-scale Farming
For forty years, ECHO has fought global hunger and malnutrition by teaching small-scale, sustainable farming to those in need. Its strength lies in building partnerships in low-income communities to provide people with agricultural skills and resources.
ECHO’s core values for its Hope Against Hunger mission are rooted in its Christian faith. By aligning its behaviors, motivations, and attitudes with its religious foundation, ECHO has been able to help people around the world by sharing the organization’s efforts, knowledge, and experience.
ECHO, which is based in North Fort Myers, Florida, currently has impact centers in Chiang Mai, Thailand; Arusha, Tanzania; and Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.
“These regions represent some of the greatest needs globally and give us the opportunities to reach out regionally to equip and train farmers where they live,” says Danielle Flood, ECHO’s public relations and communications manager.
ECHO describes itself as more of an “equipping organization” than a “project-based organization.” The charity found it has the broadest impact by working to educate local families in many locations rather than focusing on physical projects in a few locations.
It is also dedicated to feeding people in its Florida campus’s backyard. “Overall, ECHO’s mission hasn’t changed in 40 years, [it’s] just expanded,” says Flood. “Sharing these same things with our own community just makes sense.”
Embracing Farmer-Driven “Permaculture”
ECHO’s approach to ending hunger is different from charities that gather and distribute donations of food, including processed, packaged products that have a long shelf life.
The heart of ECHO’s work is equipping farmers with training, skills, knowledge, and seeds to build a successful permaculture, or an agricultural system that is renewable, in harmony with local ecosystems, and imbued with indigenous wisdom.
“There’s inherent dignity in being able to work the land and have a strong harvest that you’re proud of,” says Flood.
ECHO has found that lasting impacts are best achieved through sustainable agriculture
Often, farmers face challenges that are out of their control, such as weather patterns or political instability in their nation. Faced with these realities, ECHO has found that lasting impacts are best achieved through sustainable agriculture.
ECHO first partners with people who already know the language and culture of the community and are familiar with local agricultural challenges, says Flood.
Farmers may not know how to address certain endemic challenges, which is where ECHO can come in, she explains. However, farmers typically have centuries-old farming traditions and are skeptical of risky new technologies. “Imagine being one failed harvest away from starvation,” says Flood.
As a result, ECHO finds one or two farmers in an area who are willing to try ECHO’s methods on a small space of land. When farmers see an improved harvest, they are more willing to use ECHO’s methods on a larger plot the following season, and word and adaptation can spread.
Farmers and others who receive ECHO’s services can log onto ECHO’s website to ask questions and request seeds or information.
Interns Drive ECHO’s Success
ECHO’s mission relies on trained volunteers who can spread ECHO’s message of hope, and its Florida Gulf Coast farm is geared to keep a steady stream of interns in the pipeline. Applicants, many of whom are in university agriculture programs, go through a formal process to join ECHO; on average, ECHO has twenty-five applicants each year for eight spots.
ECHO’s Florida campus offers training in sustainable agriculture, and interns are taught how to grow various tropical plants, trees, crops and livestock. ECHO’s campus has a tilapia and duck pond that models a way for farmers to supplement their food needs. The tilapia thrive on phytoplankton, which is nourished by duck manure. Plants, microbes, ducks, and tilapia all flourish together in the pond.
In May 2022, the first group of ECHO interns finished an accredited program that offers Graduate Certificates in Tropical Agricultural Development. Three of these graduates are planning to work with ECHO in Thailand and Senegal.
ECHO is also engaged in serving low-income communities near its Florida’s Gulf Coast headquarters and tropical farm. “We exist to share knowledge freely—to make the most impact possible,” says Flood.
Stories of Physical and Spiritual Transformation
Arnaud, from Burkina Faso, was evicted from his farmland by his Muslim family after he and his wife chose to become followers of Jesus, says Flood. All that he was allowed to farm was some “worthless” land along a built-up road. “He said that God met him at his time of desperation through ECHO training,” Flood says.
He and his wife worked on that hardscrabble patch, took all they had learned from ECHO, and had the best crop in the village. Now people traveling along that road stop to ask Arnaud what he is doing and why his crops are so good. Recently, when asked to share their practices with the same villagers who had cast them out, they graciously agreed. They have now reconciled with their family and been invited back into the village.
ECHO has also taken steps to address the scarcity of biogas stoves in Tanzania. Biogas stoves use organic matter, such as manure and kitchen scraps, to produce gas for cooking and lighting as well as fertilizer for crops.
Searching for solutions to this problem, Lucy, a mechanical engineering lecturer at Tanzania’s Arusha Technical College, developed a gas-efficient biogas stove that uses a burner made of brass materials that will not easily corrode due to the biogas.
Lucy is now thinking of ways she can expand her production to make these stoves available to others, and ECHO is working to connect Lucy with biogas users to conduct testing and gather feedback so she can improve her technology.
Another standout moment for ECHO came from its work in Burkina Faso. Agriculture is the backbone of this West Africa nation’s economy, but its food demands are growing and putting pressure on its limited arable land.
ECHO recently partnered with local NGO Job Booster to provide ten-day training for 564 people in market gardening techniques to help them improve their food production.
“As a housewife, I had never learned about gardening. I managed to plant the vegetables, but it didn’t work because worms would attack my plants,” says Abigaelle Kini, who attended the ECHO training. “I learned how to make good natural products to eradicate the worms from my garden. My husband and I work together in the garden and often, our young children help us. We are teaching them little by little all that we have learned.”
Seed Banks to Banish Hunger
Along with forty years of experience, documentation, and knowledge to share, ECHO also has more than 350 varieties of seeds to share, thanks to the climate-controlled, refrigerated ECHO Global Seed Bank facility on its Florida campus. As they have done since its humble beginnings, ECHO’s staff members still sort the seeds by hand and offer well-researched answers to seed inquiries.
In addition to its Global Seed Bank, ECHO maintains regional seed banks for underutilized varieties of seeds that thrive according to geographical location. Regional development workers have access to ten free seed packets per year with expectations that they will propagate plants, such as nutrient-rich moringa, through seed and cutting sharing. Farmers are also taught seed-saving and storage techniques that protect seeds from pests.
ECHO currently partners with governments, NGOs, and hundreds of other organizations, offering staff training on how to equip farmers with vital information and skills. ECHO trains in churches and mosques, under trees, and in health care centers. Its goal is to reach the most people possible with its message of hope against hunger.
Looking ahead, ECHO seeks to expand to seven countries in South Asia and open more impact centers. “We will continue our core elements of training and resourcing to benefit 1.5 million people per year,” says Flood.
The charity’s website and its mobile app have recently been updated to provide support in nine of the most common languages in the world. ECHO is looking to provide this app free of charge to thousands more agriculturalists globally to access the resources and guidance they need to improve their livelihoods.