African farmers’ struggle to be in business, bearing fruits slowly

By Anthony Muchoki

The magic that could propel farmers to better lives across Africa seems to be improved seeds and access to assured markets for their produce, and there lies the rock and hard place.

Visiting rural farmers in Tanzania, Kenya, Ghana, and Malawi, the picture is the same- access to improved seed varieties, which holds one of the keys to adequate yields, is an uphill task and never guaranteed. This is despite farming being the most important economic activity for the majority populace in the continent.

Each country has a blueprint at the topmost level for moving small scale farmers up the ladder from the much-disdained peasantry agriculture to “farmer – business,” which would greatly reduce income poverty.
For the governments, this is the only way to create millions of jobs and ensure spread out of economic growth, which has a trickle-down effect on the most populace.

Development partners and civil society members know this, and hence increased activities from them on issues to do with agri-development should be enhanced. But when you talk to farmers on the ground, you realize how talk is cheap??? as vastly in their struggle for survival is mainly on their own.

In Tanzania, President Jakaya Kikwete is on the record, declaring Morogoro, Ruvuma, Iringa, and Mbeya as the breadbasket priority areas. He supports the Agriculture First initiative – a public and private sector partnership to promote the sector publicly.

He has been very vocal about it time and again.
At least farmers are grateful for the little efforts being made on the ground, but clearly, it is not enough. “The government initiative for farmers to do away with hand hoe in the Agriculture First initiative is good but not necessarily the best. We can continue using the hand hoe… but what we need most is good and quality seeds at prices we can afford and good prices for our produce,” says Abdala Siali of Ngerengere village in Morogoro.
The Regional Agricultural Advisor, Mrs. Aulalia Minja, laments that the cost of farming has become very high. Many times, for small farmers, the resultant income from the efforts is nothing to talk home about. Talking about improved seeds, she says:

“Use of quality seeds counts about 10 percent countrywide and is very low compared to some other African countries,” she laments. Still, Tanzania has made great strides in agri-production, and at the moment, as other East African nations suffer hunger, Tanzania is exporting grains to them.
Saumu Jumanne, a lecturer at Dar es Salaam University College of Education, says, even with the bumper harvests, many farmers will not benefit from the export of grains as intermediaries are the main beneficiaries.

“With more concerted efforts in ensuring farmers at grassroots levels have access to quality seeds and afterward assured the market that is not exploitive, the economic prospects for the majority populace would change,” she says.

In Uyole, Mbeya, Mama Bahati, interviewed about her farming activities last April by Kofi Annan, Former UN secretary-general and now the board chair of Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), appreciates the strides made in turning smallholder farmers into businesspeople.

With her small farm in an irrigation scheme in Uyole, she says, life is much better, thanks to AGRA and other stakeholders that are making it possible to get quality seeds and other inputs. Still, she says the prospects of being conned or exploited by middlemen and dealers looms large. “You have to be sure where you are getting the seeds. Fake seeds or sub-standard pesticides can destroy a whole season’s handwork,” she says.

Arnord Mushongi, a seed breeder in Mbeya at a project funded by AGRA, says meeting the demand for improved seeds is difficult and will take time. Agro-dealers also agree that the demand is high, and worse, many smallholder farmers cannot afford the price. “Because of the high prices, dishonest dealers and middlemen offer fake seeds at lower prices to unsuspecting farmers,” says a seed dealer in Mbeya who refused to be named.

Such are just samples of the complex problems that smallholder farmers face, making it impossible for Tanzania to become Africa’s breadbasket. After visiting several agri-projects in April, the AGRA board chair said the country could become Africa’s breadbasket. No one seems to have the formula for translating the said potential into reality. Even where smallholder farmers are the beneficiary, like in the case of AGRA projects in Tanzania and other countries, not all are happy.

Eastern and Southern Africa Small Scale Farmers’ Forum (ESAFF), a body which claims to operate in Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, South Africa, Madagascar, and Seychelles, says some farmers are worried that AGRA initiatives support intensive use of agrochemicals.

According to ESAFF, the AGRA package to some farmers is a short term solution and needs to advocate for ecological friendly agriculture to solve African farming problems. Despite ESAFF representing many grassroots farmer organizations across Eastern and Southern Africa, there has been no round table meeting with AGRA to reach a consensus on how to help small scale farmers, which could help greatly in advocacy for turning peasants into farmer- businesspeople. While commending efforts to support agriculture through the AU/NEPAD- Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) and other initiatives like AGRA, Moses Shaha, ESAFF Chairperson says, agroecological agriculture is the answer to future food security, a position his organization wants to sell to other bodies concerned with the plight of the smallholder farmers. But do the grassroots farmers even know what is good for them? Mostly they readily welcome any help to improve yields and get market access.
In an interview in Ghana, Ms. Sylvia Mwichuli, AGRA’s Communications, and Public Affairs Director, says, smallholder farmers are the foundation of……. and farming has to be seen and become a real business. She believes it is possible to find uniquely African problems for what ails the peasant farmers with smart partnerships.

But for Mr. Osofo Apulla, a farmer in rural Tamale in Northern Ghana, as long as he can remember, smallholder farmers’ terrestrial woes have ever hardly been solved. “Strides are made, then, later on, a step or two backward, and the vicious circle of poverty comes home to roost,” he says, but quickly points out that efforts being made at the moment by bodies like AGRA may bear fruits. He says it will take many years for small scale farmers to be the kings and queens in Africa.

In Kenya, at a village called Kaimiri in Murang’a country?? county/district, a smallholder farmer, Mrs. Cecilia Njuguna, who is over 70 years old, recalls the late 1970s early 80s and says those were the years farming was a business for her. In the last ten years, she has reduced her coffee plantation to over a thousand trees, to just a few trees here and there for remembrance.

In her shamba, she plants food crops for consumption and sale. She says there is a time she has bought fake seeds, and the yields have been a disaster. She is skeptical that agriculture can be an economic savior for Kenyans. “All the young people in the villages will only take farming as the last option. Many will go to the cities to become slaves rather than become farmers,” she says, looking up in the blue azure skies. Many farmers have no other choice for making a living, she adds.

Mrs. Cecilia’s concerns and others are valid to some extent, and that is why to make the green revolution real, involving farmers is one of the keys to success. In Malawi, Ibrahim Benesi, a cassava breeder who has been featured in AGRA’s “Faces of Green Revolution,” says the farmer must be at the forefront in any research for improving agriculture. For him, working closely with farmers in breeding new varieties is the key to success.

The Northern regional director, Ministry of Agriculture in Ghana, Mr. J. Y. Faalong, also supports the idea that smallholder farmers are the key for progress to be made in turning them into businesspeople. In all the programs they have for supporting farmers to increase productivity and production, the farmer is always at the center stage. Farmers may not necessarily feel it that way, but he is confident, things are working, albeit slowly. In 2010, he says over 15,000 smallholder farmers who were beneficiaries of many agri-projects were able to increase yields and become farmer businesspeople.

As Africa turns to apply science and technology, small scale farmers in every country you go are not left behind. Even if the continent makes slow progress in turning smallholder farmers into businesspeople, the words of AGRA’s president, Dr. Namanga Ngongi, are the most important sectors as drivers of growth, poverty reduction, and food security, rings true, but when will this be? Can it be…..