What use are models of change? An experiment in Tanzania

May 24, 2011

Do men and women see hunger differently?

May 24, 2011

What would it take for Tanzanian farmers' kids to stay on the land? Some views from women farmers

May 24, 2011
empty image
empty image

Bumba village in Tanzania’s deprived Shinyanga region is green, but not green enough, considering we are just at the end of what was supposed to be the rainy season. The maize is already withering on many of the small farms. But Thelezia Salula’s fields are looking pretty good – neatly planted rice paddy bending under the weight of the grains, just two weeks away from harvest. She reckons she’ll get 35 bags, each of them weighing 80 kilogrammes (as we talk, farmers with earlier harvests stagger by, bent under the load of their crops). She keeps some for family consumption, but has to sell the rest to pay for clothes and school fees for her 7 children. As a result, last year she ran out of rice half way through the year. For the last six months, the family have been living off their maize and what rice they could afford to buy in the market.

A conversation with Thelezia, sat on a muddy path next to her rice field, provides a guided tour of the problems (sorry, we’re supposed Theleziato say ‘challenges’) facing Africa’s farmers. The family has no title deeds to the land, but do have a local document that the village authorities accept. On that document, however, all the land is in her husband’s name, apart from one field that belongs to her eldest son. ‘I would like to have my name on’ Thelezia says, ‘I have contributed’. She is over-modest: she is the farmer, while her husband teaches (and brings in less money than she does).

Thelezia launches into the issue of prices – always gripping for farmers. In particular the gulf between the price at which she is forced to sell her rice soon after harvest (when prices are lowest), and the price she has to pay when her family stocks run out. She blames the lack of storage, which would enable her to put away her rice until prices improve, but also the local traders who come to the village and buy rice, but at much lower prices than in the local towns. 

What single change would improve her life? She suggests two: to control the price she receives for her rice (every farmer’s dream, however unfeasible) or to sell the rice beyond the village, where prices are better.

One thing that has improved is her yields: the simple switch from sowing broadcast (i.e. throwing the seed around), to planting seedlings at 20cm intervals, has hugely increased productivity (plug for Oxfam, its programme has funded the training that Thelezia attended). More generally she says, farming in her parents time was not based on knowledge and that has changed.

Another farmer, Philip Msemakweli, chips in on another big change – to the climate: ‘in our parents’ time, the rainfall pattern was fixed – we knew the rain would come in this or that month. But now there are huge uncertainties – we don’t know when to sow, when it will rain. It has a big impact. It’s almost impossible to farm sustainably any more.’

DSC00243More farmers arrive and we move to the partial shade of a leafless tree. The conversation turns to their hopes for their children. Most of them, like poor farmers everywhere, want their kids to study and escape from farming to a ‘good job’ in an office, or for the government. ‘The world is changing, but if they stay in farming their lives won’t change.’ None of their children want to be farmers: ‘no-one will farm when I am old and I will suffer the consequences’, says Thelezia ‘My children will have to pay for labourers to work the farm.’ Farming, it seems, is the last resort when you fail your exams.

But one woman, Salome Luboja, does want her kids to be farmers, and sets out three things that would have to change for that to happen. Firstly, education and knowledge about modern farming methods; second irrigation to safeguard farmers from the vagaries of the newly unreliable rains, and third improved markets and prices. I’m not convinced – towns are just so much more fun than farms, especially for young people – but the women insist that if the facilities were there, the work would not be such a grind, and if the incomes were higher than in the town, the kids would stay on the farm.

I still think many of them will chose to migrate, but if governments and aid donors invest properly in small farmers like Thelezia, (which is one of the things Oxfam is pushing for in its impending global campaign, launching on 1 June) at least her children will have a dignified and genuine choice between staying and leaving. That’s only the start though: the flatness of this plain, under a huge sky and scorching sun, seems especially vulnerable to the whims of an increasingly harsh climate. Unless climate change can be controlled too, and people helped to adapt to it, any progress is likely to be short-lived.

3 comments

  1. The testimony of these people, women and men, farmers, is presented almost in the same words I have heard from small indigenous farmers in North East and West Nicaragua.
    Changing Climate, poor access to services, isolation conditions, uncertainty, huge efforts to produce and huggest un equity between prices at harvest time and survival buy of grain during the “hunger time”.
    While here, farmers do not have the urgency for irrrigation yet, they do have the sense of urgency, for further education and technical transference to help their children to improve farming in order to get enough food and seeds to become sustainable without falling the woods and increasing agricultural area from the forest reserves…economic migration, out of despair and lack of opportunities and the same incredible will to move forward when something provides reasons for hope.
    Now, small cooperatives and mutual support groups are farming in diversified plots using a mixture of traditional knowledge and apropriated techniques to get food arround the year and to increase their yields to keep enough reserves for their consumption and produce seed for the next agricultural cycle.
    So far, their success is moving more and more small farmers to replicate the experience, with support from their fellow, who are sharing the mixture of techniques and exchanging with other women and men in each community.
    Support from Oxfam has been limitted to seeds of a wider number of crops, (some of them, the sort of crops their parents and elders used to farm in associatted fashion), and some support for technical accompaniment to the small initial nucleous of twenty farmers, half women and half men, who are committed to do a joint effort; the second replicae comes from the support and resources that initial group provides to others in the community.
    They have proved to produce enough for themselves and to have some surplus to be able to share.
    The farmer to farmer approach combines with traditional indigenous ways of mutual support and is succesful to the point that after a recent flood, the farmers organized in this scheme were able to proivide the food reserves for the whole population to survive until they received external aid (somehow delayed by distance and costs) and were able to sow again.
    Previously, they were totally dependent upon external aid, and have to rely on food packages and seeds (often not the best for their land and environment, nor culturally sensible).
    Now they coped with their own produce and kept seeds (their own) for the following cycle.
    In the words of one of the women farmers: “we feel better to be able to survive by our own means, than to just survive…”, self confidence and mutual respect have returned to be part of their lives.

    Duncan: thanks Carlos. Feels like a global issue we should campaign on doesn’t it? Oh, wait…….

  2. Duncan – fascinating as always and full of good stuff but…it feels like you’re missing an obvious point here – food storage. Some people doubt whether storage would actually allow farmers to sell at a better price later but, nevertheless, Thelezia immediately identifies it as the first thing that would help her. I remember too seeing studies by Tony Nyong of the University of Jos that pinpoint how farmers in northern Nigeria emphasise storage as a major component of adaptation to climatic changes (sorry, can’t find the reference). And recently the FAO said that 1.3 billion tons of food is lost each year, one third of total global production; one reason being lack of storage or cooling or other means of preserving it. Yet the rest of your blog says nothing more about solving this very problem that the farmers have identified. Why is that?

    Duncan: good point John, makes sense to me

  3. The children and grandchildren of farmers leaving the land – this is why farmer populations are ageing worldwide. A phenomenon associated with Europe & north America is happening in middle-income and increasingly in low-income countries too. (In Mozambique over two-thirds of the members of a small farmers’ union are aged 50 or over). A recent Beijing News article was headlined “In ten years, who will farm the land?” a point which echoes Thelezia’s question in Duncan’s blog. Duncan’s right to call for proper investment in farmers like Thelezia, but it’s also important to invest in the security of older farmers. While poor countries may hesitate to follow China’s example in introducing a massive social pension programme for rural dwellers, the promise of old-age security may be helpful not just for today’s generation of older farmers, but also in persuading their children to stay on the land too.

Leave a comment