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How 360-degree support to small-scale African farmers is driving productivity and bolstering livelihoods

29/06/2022

Agriculture is the leading sector in Africa and employs approximately 65% of the labour force. It is also imperative for improving food security and addressing hunger. Smallholder farmers generate up to 80% of food across the continent, so improving their productivity by modernising their farming and business practices is vital to ensuring social and economic rural development.

Bulole Kachwele Ntalaamu, a subsistence farmer in the Lake Zone of northern Tanzania, depended entirely upon the crops grown on his small one acre plot to feed his family and provide a marginal income from selling the excess. He had learnt the established methods of farming from his father as a boy and relied mainly on manual irrigation to water his crops.

However, for Bulole, as for many smallholder farmers in remote parts of sub-Saharan Africa, these practices have limitations and meant his farming only provided an erratic subsistence level of income. This sometimes left Bulole unable to afford the nutritious food, school fees and medicine his family needed.

From subsistence farming to agri-business

In addition to the lack of mechanisation and adverse soil and climate conditions, Bulole also contended with critical skills and knowledge gaps that held him back and prevented him from progressing to a more commercial level of agricultural production. For example, he was at the mercy of seed sellers at local auction houses, who would charge him too much for seeds that had either expired or were not reared properly. He also didn’t know what the most appropriate pesticides and fertilisers were for his onion and papaya crops. As a result, his produce was often scarce and partially spoiled by pests. Bulole also did not have access to packaging and storing facilities to reduce post-harvest losses, plus didn’t know where to sell his harvest to attain better prices.

A transformative support package for small-scale farmers

Bulole is not an isolated case. There is an urgent need for systematic interventions that address all the constraints and challenges that low-income farmers like him face across Africa. A holistic set of interventions make up the 360-degree package of support that is being implemented by Energy 4 Impact and German development agency GIZ (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit) as part of the Water and Energy for Food (WE4F) programme.

While acknowledging that traditional agricultural methods are resourceful, technical experts from Energy 4 Impact work closely with farmers to improve their practices more broadly in order to make them more efficient and profitable producers. In addition to introducing technological innovations such as mechanised irrigation and inputs, they ensure that other key factors are in place so smallholder farmers can thrive.

Bulole is one of 320 beneficiaries recruited in the Lake Zone to receive this support package, which provides mentorship and training on agronomy, horticulture, business and cash‐flow management, sustainable production, efficient post-harvest management and financial planning, as well as providing linkages to technology suppliers and new markets.  

Irrigation alone is not enough

Once recruited onto the WE4F programme, Bulole was able to use a deposit he had raised from selling cattle to acquire a submersible solar pump. To increase farmers’ ability to pay for appliances Energy 4 Impact brokered deals with selected suppliers offering credit or pay-as-you-go solutions, with repayments schemes that align with seasonal rural incomes.  The immediate effect of installing a solar irrigation was transformative for Bulole who managed to pay off the pump in just two months following the sale of his harvests.

Watering the crop with a can used to involve up to 260 trips a day by one of his sons and two of his grandchildren to a borehole about 30 metres from the outskirts of his farmland (or sometimes the tiring and labour-intensive use of a pedal pump). Today Bulole’s new solar irrigation system has a 100-metre pipe that stretches all the way from the borehole to his farmland. He is thrilled by the impact this reduction in labour has had on his family. “I can just switch on the system and keep my crops well-watered. My grandchildren are now free to pursue their education and only need to perform odd jobs around the farm after school hours.”

However, Programme Manager Fredrick Tunutu stresses that facilitating access to irrigation alone is not enough.

There is much more to our holistic approach towards improving crop output and farmer income. It is imperative we help farmers acquire the knowledge and skills they need to set themselves up for success.  We put great emphasis on building farmers’ expertise in agronomy so they produce bigger and healthier crops, whilst also learning how to put more competitive business practices in place.

After linking him to local suppliers of higher quality seeds, Energy 4 Impact’s agronomist  demonstrated how to select the most suitable fertilisers for his crops and use them in the correct ratios at the right time in the growing cycle. Bulole also learned about the benefits of crop rotation. Many years of harvesting onions in the same plot had resulted in the proliferation of soil-borne bacteria and worms, so he was advised that it’s essential to leave fields fallow for a season to combat pests and preserve soil fertility. He also learnt about the need to use protective bags to package his produce once harvested to minimise damage.

Bulole was also very interested to learn more about the advantages of switching to producing African birds-eye chilli peppers on some of his land. Chilli peppers are not only highly resistant to pests, but also fetch a good and stable price from Tanzanian agri-businesses that export them to international markets. Following training in bargaining skills, officers from Energy 4 Impact introduced Bulole to various offtakers and he is currently in the process of negotiating a contractual arrangement to start producing the crop for them next season. After a long period of dependence on unpredictable demand at local markets, Bulole will soon benefit from the security of having a guaranteed buyer in place.  

In the meantime, Bulole has forged ahead with expansion plans which have resulted in a dramatic increase in his productive capacity. Now able to properly irrigate more of his land, he has tripled the acreage he exploits for cultivation of onions and has accordingly seen a sharp rise in his projected annual income: from $1530 USD to $3400.

As advised, Bulole is now planning to switch over to watermelon, cucumber, tomato and okra crops soon on a portion of his land. Not only will the rotation of a greater variety of crops improve soil health, combat pests, and provide a broader nutritious diet for his family. The choice of these particular crops, which typically fetch higher prices at market, coupled with access to better markets and buyers and the confidence to negotiate good terms with them will contribute to a further increase to his income.

Increased income for small-scale farmers benefits the wider community

Bulole’s increased income has already made it possible for him to bring about some major improvements in his personal life. He says,

I’m now in a better position to help my children and grandchildren with their school fees and medicinse when they fall ill. I’ve also made enough money to build a more comfortable and spacious concrete house on my farmland. Our lives have changed so much for the better.

Bulole is just one of hundreds of farmers who have begun to modernise their operations after attending Energy 4 Impact training workshops on business management at local community venues. Focusing on key topics such as marketing and insurance as well as bargaining and financial planning, the training has also spurred many farmers to open savings accounts and acquire loans to purchase the tools and equipment they need to grow their businesses. With support from Energy 4 Impact officers, more and more farmers participating in the WE4F programme will be able to ensure and demonstrate the financial solvency needed to diversify and expand their businesses.

The provision of business support to install solar irrigation has proved indispensable in leading to a better quality of life for farmers and their families, but the benefits of the full package of interventions cannot be underestimated. Fredrick Tunutu says:

Our goal is to help farmers to earn a decent living sustainably. But it is also gratifying to see that the transition from inefficient labour-intensive methods to modern farming creates a ripple effect of benefits for the whole community. These benefits range from better and more varied food produce, improved household diets, more job opportunities for local labour and greater food security. As more and more farmers adopt these practices, they will become a vital engine for economic growth in poor agricultural regions.