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September 15, 2011

Small farmers in vanguard of Africa's agricultural development

by Mark Tran in Kitui

The 36-year-old mother of three Wayua Mwanza is digging a hole known as a zai pit. It is backbreaking work but, with the help of fellow farmers and her three boys, she has pockmarked her three acres with 110 holes, two to four feet in length, breadth and height, in preparation for the next rains in October. She gets up at six in the morning and digs until 10, when it becomes too hot.

Once a pit is dug, it is filled with a compost of leaves and stems and then topped with manure. It holds water and the food is grown on top.

The humble zai pit is a simple, yet ingenious low-tech innovation for farmers such as Mwanza as they try to eke out a living in the semi-arid part of eastern Kenya, a region blighted by the worst drought in 60 years.

Agriculture, predominantly small scale, accounts for about 30% of sub-Saharan Africa's GDP and at least 40% of export value. Having fallen out of favour in the development debate in the last decade, agriculture these days gets its own G20 summits and there are moves to make agriculture the centrepiece of the he Rio+20 global development summit next June.

Small African farmers such as Mwanza stand on the frontline in the battle for higher productivity and agricultural development, a struggle being fought not with tractors and GM crops but with hoes, wheelbarrows and indigenous drought-resistant crops: cowpeas, pigeon peas, green grams, sorghum and millet.

Kitui, an hour and a half's drive from Nairobi, is particularly prone to drought, with neighbouring Mwingi even more so. It is an unforgiving land for farming, where plots can be as small as one acre.

Despite the poor April rains, Mwanza managed a June harvest of 10kg of green grams. The bean, used for stews, is much in demand and so fetches good prices.

"My only harvest this year came from zai pits, otherwise there would have been no food," said Mwanza, who runs the farm while her husband works in town painting signs. Most of the farmers in Kitui are women, while the men look for manual work in town.

Many other farmers failed to get any sort of harvest, so Mwanza's achievement marks her out as a star. Having seen the effectiveness of zai pits, Mwanza wants to dig 400 more. She is sculpting her land for survival, not just with zai pits but also with terraces, which will break a long slope into a series of shorter ones. This, together with negarims (small, semi-circular barriers of earth), will control the flow of water, slowing its run-off.

But low-tech can still be costly. Mwanza says she would like more hoes, but at £45 a hoe, it is far more than she can afford. The simple brick house she lives in with one of her children is no bigger than a small bedroom.

Farmers like Mwanza face other, more intangible challenges. Kenyans have acquired a taste for maize, which is prone to failure in drought.

Peterson Mwangi is a crops officer with Farm-Africa, a British NGO providing 6,000 farmers in the region with seeds, tools and equipment to grow drought-tolerant crops and drill bore holes. He argues that, by buying sorghum and millet instead of maize to stock up their strategic food reserves, the Kenyan government and international agencies such as the World Food Programme can play a vital role in driving demand for drought-resistant crops.

Professor Olivier De Schutter, the UN special rapporteur on the right to food, argues small-scale farming can be as productive as large-scale farming, if not more so. He says it contributes to the alleviation of rural poverty and rural development. He points out too that, for poorly qualified rural workers, there is simply no other option in manufacturing or services. But a number of conditions must be satisfied to ensure decent livelihoods and to allow them to move beyond subsistence agriculture.

"Small-scale farmers must have access to markets, which means routes and means of transport, or else they depend entirely on the goodwill of middlemen, who pay them low prices and vis-a-vis whom they are in a very weak bargaining position," he said. "They must have support from the state in the form of agricultural extension services and training and they must have access to inputs."

De Schutter points out that South Africa's ambitious land reform scheme is an almost complete failure because the land being redistributed after the break-up of large, white-owned commercial farms cannot be used by beneficiaries of land reform who have no training, no state support, no access to markets and who are not organised and thus almost always unable to achieve economies of scale.

The Guardian

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