What would you do for a paycheck?

Every year thousands of young men in Zambia leave their rural communities, their families, and life on the farm behind to go work in the copper mines.  They choose to work underground, doing physically demanding work in suffocating, claustrophobic environments, where there is a real risk of death.  Why would anyone choose to leave the farm and work in such a place?  Simple: the lure of a regular paycheck.

This is the story Joseph Mutale told me as we travelled together to Lusaka.  He spent 30 years in the mines before retiring to Katete, where he and his wife now manage a small farm and grow vegetables.  Still, most of his income comes from renting out his old house in the Copperbelt and from remittances from his children.  It rings true with my experience: most people I’ve talked with would prefer a steady job to fertilizer subsidies or agricultural extension support.

Life on the farm often means working tremendously hard to coax crops out of increasingly infertile soil, worrying about droughts or floods, and hoping that there will be a market for what does grow.  The seasonality of farming in Zambia leads to farmers getting relatively large influxes of cash once per year.  With a regular income there is greater predictability and forced budgeting, which allow people to make better investments for the future (think about the last time you received a large influx of cash and how much you saved versus how much you spent right away).

Paul Collier comments:

This is not how I see rural Africa: I see not a paradise but a prison. Peasant agriculture offers only a narrow range of economic activities with little scope for sustaining decent livelihoods. In other societies people have escaped poverty by moving out of agriculture. The same is true in Africa: young people want to leave the land; educated people want to work in the cities. Above all, people want jobs: peasants are unavoidably thrust into the role of risk-taking entrepreneurship, a role for which most people are unsuited.

There are many entrepreneurial small-scale farmers who are finding innovative new ways of pushing up their yields and earning higher profits; but these are the minority, just as entrepreneurs (and farmers) are the minority in developed countries.  Most would quickly leave the precarious life of a farmer.  With so much money now pouring into agricultural development, it will be important to remember how far people will go to secure a paycheck.

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Working to include smallholder farmers in agricultural markets, we know there are no easy answers. This blog is a place to ask "What does it take to make it work?" and to share what we're seeing and learning.
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