Throughout history societies have faced problems and it is no secret that today humankind faces a myriad of challenges that must be dealt with in shaping the future. Agriculture is not exempt; actually, the complexity and broad scope of the agriculture and agri-food sector faces particular challenges on all fronts – social, economic, and environmental. We are all aware of the consequences this could pose to global food supply. There is no shortage of actions being undertaken by a plethora of actors (private, public, third party) and policies to address these, all motivated and backed by different and often conflicting interests. Most actors and actions, I believe, stem from good intentions that follow a fairly standard approach. Yet, I believe, many agricultural projects fail to achieve any significant long-term changes and do not change the flawed underlying system. Despite efforts and awareness of the importance of adopting more bottom-up approaches consulting with and allowing people affected most by the projects to shape them, many development efforts remain top-down and little guided by hard scientific data and functioning on short time frames, as dictated by donors and the development system. It seems there is often little communication between various echelons of project actors and participants. For instance, it seems many of those making decisions continue to be far removed from farmers in the field despite all the rhetoric about participatory development. However, there are some exceptions and I think this is really starting to change in the sector.
I have been incredibly fortunate to meet some inspiring people over the years. Today I would like to share one story of a 26-year-old man, Zacharia and he lives with his extended family in northern Benin. I met him in 2013. Zacharia had never received help from any project nor formal training on agriculture. He learned farming from his parents and their friends.
Zacharia was an enigma in his town. Unlike his peers, he decided to stay in his town and work as a farmer. The overwhelming majority of his friends decided farming was too physically demanding and the majority left to seek greener pastures in the browner urban centres, preferring to sell black-market petrol on the road side or drive motorcycle taxis. In Benin the farming population is aging, and this is a global phenomenon. This not surprising though, as it is increasingly difficult to get into and or make a living from farming. To make money from agricultural endeavours usually requires massive investments and large scales – something that the elite and multinationals are better able to undertake. Furthermore, those who have the money also have the power often set the standards and policy, which are then shaped to generally favour them. If the average person attempts to make a living from farming they often end up in crippling debt and this debt is hard to pay-off by farming. This trend can be deadly, as documented by farmer suicide in India. Apart from poor policies that put family farmers at a disadvantage, consumers are generally not willing or able to pay high prices for good food, and do not realize what good, healthy food and a healthy farm system really costs.
But I digress. Zacharia, a primary school graduate, had farmed with his parents regularly since he was a small child. He got his own land beside his family’s and continued to farm. When I asked him why he did not leave farming and his town like his peers, he responded “I like to farm, you get something at the end. It is difficult, but rewarding and it gives me food. You do not depend on anyone and you produce for yourself.”
He grows a variety of produce: vegetables, grains, legumes, and cashews, and he has some poultry. Some is for food, some for cash. It is a very intricate and complex livelihood system that involves numerous projections and calculations to ensure he and his family have enough cash and food to last throughout the year. It is extremely complicated to understand his personal situation and decisions, and then that of his large extended household, which are all interwoven. But for anyone setting agricultural interventions and policy, such information is crucial. But it is information that simple questionnaires cannot always capture, particularly if they are poorly conceived and administered. This critical information is missing in too many development projects, which tend to lack the mechanisms, money, initiative and time to obtain it.
Zacharia’s small vegetable plot produces tomatoes, okra, peppers, bitter-balls amaranth, and a dizzying variety of nutritious local vegetables, and it does so nearly year-round nearly. He fertilizes with compost, which he makes himself and he can also get free manure from the weekly livestock market. He irrigates his garden using water from a nearby dam, though sometimes there are floods and sometimes it runs dry – both have negative consequences for his vegetable plot, which neighbours the dam. There is a high demand for tomatoes but Zacharia has a difficult time competing with the ubiquitous cheap canned tomatoes and tomato paste that originate in China and inundate African markets. He also produces staple grains, the sorghum, millet, and maize, that feed him and his family and provide income if he has enough to sell. He would like to sell his maize later in the season when prices are higher, but his financial situation usually requires him to sell part of his crop upon harvesting to local and regional merchants at very low prices. If he sells too much or inaccurately predicts the family’s yearly grain needs, he is forced to re-purchase grains at exorbitant prices during the “hungry period”, which comes when one year’s food stocks have run out and harvest is still weeks or months away. This well-documented trend of farmers selling when prices are low has been targeted by various development actions for decades, but it still persists.
Zacharia gets most of his cash from selling soya and cashew to local merchants or to buyers from farther away. The cashew value chain in Benin is extremely disorganized and there are many intermediaries in the buying business. The price for cashew fluctuates erratically through the season and makes it difficult to plan and obtain the best price for his nuts. Zacharia and other cashew farmers cannot be sure when to sell and what they will receive for their harvest, no matter what its quality.
The cashew farmers in his village have tried to do bulk sales through a producer group they established upon the advice of a project and nearby cashew processing factory. But their group was unsuccessful in executing any bulk sales for higher prices per kilo because the buyers went elsewhere and this forced the producers to come down in price and disband, selling independently. Some did not manage to sell their harvest before the season ended. Nevertheless, the cashews still brings Zacharia solid cash income relative to other farming undertakings, and cashew requires much less work than cotton, which he used to help his father grow before they both abandoned it. However, without cotton, farmers like Zacharia do not receive state supported agricultural extension nor the access subsidized inputs. But Zacharia likes his free compost.
Despite of all these challenges, when I met Zacharia he was not at all negative, and indeed he was anxious to talk about one of his greatest farming passions – experimenting with varieties, notably his beans. He had been experimenting with beans for a few years, ever since he obtained and adapted some fast maturing varieties from another farmer. He had the idea to try planting twice a year – once very early in the season and again mid season. An idea inspired partly by a desire to increase yearly harvests and also motivated by changes in rainfall and the planting season. It was successful and he was able to harvest two-times during the rainy season! Other farmers around him have started to do the same. Zacharia says he will continue experimenting with his seeds because he is able to do so much and he enjoys it. He does not have the purchased high yielding high-bred varieties some of the farmers have. Of those, he says “They give, but only for one season, then you have to buy again!” He prefers his own seeds, which are free, and he constantly gets some yield. He enjoys the diversity on his plots because the mixture is like a kind of insurance, making them more resilient to unexpected adverse events, such as disease or drought. He doesn’t have a tractor or any mechanical device, so the lack of uniformity in height of his crops, for instance, does not bother him. But he would like machinery because he cannot provide all the labour his lands require and cannot afford to pay labourers – they are too expensive or there is simply no one around or willing to work. Zacharia, however, continues to farm because he enjoys experimenting and said he will try with other crops soon.
Stories like Zacharia’s, and his motivation and passion for innovation and agriculture are quite common globally if you look for them. I believe that facilitating ground-up experimentation and adaptation, as Zacharia is doing, is how real change occurs and stories like Zacharia's should be sought out, shared, and build upon and farmer-to-farmer exchanges encouraged.