RUCODIA: AGRA’s role in creating sustainable food systems is commendable but should do more

*Workable input distribution networks key to technology adoption, sustainable and improved food systems

Dr Joseph Mhagama  is a Member of Parliament for Madaba Constituency in Tanzania, chair of parliamentary committee on Law and Constitution and the CEO of RUCODIA (Ruvuma Commercialization and Diversification of Agriculture)” a vocal civil society about commercialization and diversification of agriculture as a pathway to empower smallholder farmers in the country. The following oped is derived from a long chat with Mr Japhet Laizer about a wide range of issues in the agriculture sector, including his views on AGRA impact:

By Dr Joseph Mhagama

Sustainable food system transformation should go hand in hand with increased incomes for smallholder farmers in the rural areas, which translates into an improved livelihood.

Rucodia has been working with Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) to catalyze food system transformation, which is essential for inclusive national development.

Making collective agricultural transformation work is not an easy task and requires concerted efforts from diverse actors in the sector. AGRA 2017-21 strategy for Tanzania implementation has been very supportive in enabling Rucodia to provide life-changing business development services to small farmers on the input distribution channel. Establishing workable input distribution networks has been a key in technology adoption for sustainable and improved food production.

In implementing the Tanzanian PiATA-TIJA initiative, a part of a Pan-African Partnership for Inclusive Agricultural Transformation in Africa (PIATA), Rucodia was one of the five members of a consortium supported by AGRA in Western regions. We recruited 803 agro-dealers in Kigoma and managed to reach 172,661 farmers along with different components of extension, access to market, access to finance, and distribution of agricultural technologies in around 300 villages. Similarly, in the Kagera region, the initiative supported and capacitated 596 agro-dealers to manage agro-inputs who managed to supply services to 257,921 farmers in 420 villages.

Business development services are about imparting knowledge that becomes a power for the partakers. After we made the new agro-dealers understand the agri-business’s potential and how supporting/ advising smallholder farmers would lead to more incomes for them and farmers, we saw increased productivity across the villages involved. With AGRA’s support, RUCODIA has shown how critical agro dealership is as an interphase between the input and output market on disseminating agriculture technologies. We trained retail and hub-agro dealers on business management, stock management, and managerial skills. We also had regulatory institutions such as Tropical Pesticides Research Institute (TPRI), Tanzania Official Seed Certification (TOSCI), and Tanzania Fertilizer Regulatory Authority(TFRA), among others, onboard. The institutions were able to come and show them how to get necessary business permits as per the requirements of the law and procedures.

We managed to improve the availability and accessibility of inputs and extension services. Farmers’ distances to access inputs and extension services shortened thanks to new input outlets (retail inputs shops) in rural areas. Farmers in the most remote villages in Kigoma or Kagera can access technology – new seed varieties, fertilizers, crop protection etc., near their farms/localities. Increased number and spatial distribution of agricultural inputs through agro-dealers – reduced distances travelled by farmers to access improved seeds and fertilizers from 12 km to 7 km.

High technology adoption

With the availability of inputs assured, there has been a vastly increased uptake of improved seeds, fertilizers, and agronomic practices by smallholder farmers through demos and other promotional activities. Most farmers adopted the use of agricultural inputs (improved seeds and fertilizers) because of demonstration and promotional activities; in so doing, productivity and production have increased; for instance, maize productivity moved from 1.5MT/ha to 4MT/ha.

The initiative facilitated the establishment of demonstration plots for increased uptake of improved seeds and agronomic practices by smallholder farmers from a ‘ seeing is believing’ perspective. Also, during the agricultural exhibition and rural field days, participants learned the correct usage of inputs, a key factor in increased production.

Partnership with input companies

Our partnership with input companies revealed you would never walk alone to cascade the distribution of modern agricultural technologies to rural farmers. Technology manufacturers and suppliers worked collaboratively with the consortium to give away small packs. These included new seed varieties, the development of learning sites, farmers’ field days, agricultural shows and exhibitions paved to promote the best innovation, which increased farmers’ choices and options from a broad array of agricultural products.

The consortium business model is a big deal for integrated investments.

AGRA introduced to RUCODIA the consortium business model, which has played a crucial role in strengthening business linkages and relations between input companies, financial institutions and farmer organizations. It has made a vibrant ecosystem of agricultural input business, with last-mile delivery through Village Based Advisors becoming a reality.

AGRA’s support in mobilization and enabling actors to play their roles helped create new sustainable dynamics. Most agro-dealers that came to be from 2017 to 2021 as a result of our efforts, and supported by AGRA, are running their enterprises successfully and continue to catalyze and sustain technology distribution for agricultural transformation.

The innovation of agro dealership development accelerated the distribution of technologies in rural areas through formal channels. This involved strengthening the agro-dealer network that facilitated smallholder farmers’ access to agricultural inputs (fertilizer and improved seeds), better extension services, soil management practices, financing and linkages to output markets.

Thanks to the consortium business model, retail and hub agro-dealers operate their business profitably and sustainably as a result of enhanced business and stock management skills, digitalization of management and supply of inputs, and established and strengthened business linkages amongst inputs companies, agro-dealers (retail and hub), financial institutions and farmer organizations. With the firms running profitably, agro dealerships have become competitive and vibrant, giving farmers more choices.

Agro-dealer-led input delivery 

We were able to introduce an agro-dealer-led input delivery model whose components for input delivery included: training, grant-giving, supporting hub-agro-dealers and facilitating their access to credit from commercial banks. Agrodealer hubs model – the development of agro-dealer hubs was to strengthen links with seed suppliers, who would advance small amounts of inputs on a consignment basis to start-up agro-dealer retailers, which in turn, translated the benefits to smallholder farmers. Some hubs aggregated crops and established forward linkages with commodity buyers for output crop marketing.

Rucodia integrated the Village Based Advisors (VBA) model into upstream and downstream input and output markets. The spirit of agric entrepreneurs of VBA increased the multiplier effect on last-mile delivery of input, increasing the adoption of technologies. At the same time, we established agro-dealers associations and a platform model that gives agro-dealers a voice for negotiating with governments and also helps agro-dealers to police themselves and prevent unscrupulous traders from damaging genuine businesses.

We had an Agri trade fair and exhibition, which increased competitiveness and provided farmers preference and choice for different technologies. Events such as demonstration plots, field days, input fairs, exhibitions, and market linkages facilitation were instrumental in bridging business to grassroots in terms of technology availability and distribution channels.

Youth start-up grants targeted.

Micro-grants were provided to start-up agro-dealers for renovating agro-dealers shops – including improving interior ventilation, business branding, and providing shelves to stimulate faster business growth among women and youths. Around 450 transformed VBA from geographical consortia benefited from the matching grant. At the same time, the program facilitated agro-dealers to access credit from commercial banks by organizing business to business (B2B) meetings.

The way forward

Tanzania has a vast potential to improve food security and uplift most farmers out of poverty. AGRA, in flagship projects, should consider the need to promote recognition and funding of new growth corridors beyond the traditionally widely known Southern Zone Growth Corridor (Ruvuma, Njombe, Iringa, Mbeya, Songwe, Rukwa, Katavi regions)

There is a massive potential for Western Zone Growth Corridor (Kigoma and Kagera regions); Central Growth Corridor (Manyara, Singida, Dodoma); Coastal Zone Growth Corridor (Pwani, Lindi, Mtwara regions) and the Lake Zone Growth Corridor (Tabora, Shinyanga, Geita, Simiyu and Mwanza regions).

AGRA strategy should build on agricultural marketing systems, policy and agro-infrastructure. These are potent triggers for increased investment in the agriculture sector. Input supply/distribution and agricultural financing need to be enhanced despite the past achievements.

We need a single-digit interest rate from different financial institutions to realize the full potential of the agriculture sector. We have a considerable business financing gap- financing of start-up agro-dealers businesses, expansion of Hub agro-dealers businesses and distribution channels, and building of outputs marketing systems and infrastructure.

The output market and Agri infrastructure need increased investment and expansion. After all, a reliable and profitable market is the incentive for higher productivity and production.

AGRA should continue offering business development services. Insufficient business skills and ethics in input business. There is a frequency of new entrance of input business in rural areas; however, most lack the business skill and stock management to serve farmers in the best ways.

Strengthening established consortium is vital. Weak integration of business relations, the fragile partnership between agricultural outputs off-takers, processors, aggregators, retail agro-dealers, hub-agro dealers, inputs companies, financial institutions and farmer organizations, is a component that needs to be addressed.

Another recommendation is for AGRA to support the digitization of the agriculture sector for efficiency and better delivery of service to smallholder farmers. At the same time, AGRA should continue supporting policy change discourse for an improved business environment.

* Dr Joseph Mhagama  is a Member of Parliament for Madaba Constituency in Tanzania, chair of parliamentary committee on Law and Constitution and the CEO of RUCODIA (Ruvuma Commercialization and Diversification of Agriculture)” a vocal civil society about commercialization and diversification of agriculture as a pathway to empower smallholder farmers in the country.