Archive Page 2

Why a farmer-first approach might not work

Picture a small scale farmer in Zambia.

Imagine all the things that keep that farmer from running their farm as a profitable business.

There are lots of reasons, but let’s looks at the most commonly cited ones:

Lack of farming and business skills and knowledge.
Lack of capital, financial and otherwise.
Lack of power, societal and otherwise.

All these reasons illicit a common reaction from donors and NGOs:

“Let’s train them.”
“Let’s give or sell them stuff.”
“Let’s empower them by doing the first two.”

Now, for you practitioners out there, think back to the last time you ran a farmer training.

Do you remember how many of those people went home and tried doing something new? Do you remember how many people actually changed their behaviour?

Likely, a very small number. Maybe 5% (the ones that are always quick to adopt), 10% if you’re lucky.

Why is that? Is that an acceptable return on investment?

I’m as big a fan of investing in small-scale farmers as anyone out there, so I can’t help but feel disappointed by this outcome. Even if you use the best methods and even if you design all the best incentives, programs that employ training and technology subsidies by rote don’t get very far.

There must be more to it.

What if a farmer’s lack of knowledge and assets is seen as a symptom, not a cause, of the problem? What if you zoomed out and looked at the larger system?

Though an important player, the small-scale farmer is one of many players in a large and complicated market system. The solution to a problem in one part of the system (e.g., with the farmer) may be found in a completely different part of it (e.g., in the financial industry).

This means that the solution to a farmer-focused problem might require a non-farmer-focused solution (e.g., working directly with banks to create a low-margin-high-volume business model, services from which a small-scale farmer can choose to access to improve their business).

I see a lot of organizations moving in this direction, but I’m afraid their efforts will be futile if the image of a deficient farmer continues to loom large in their methods. Training farmers and “linking” them to other players is simply a variation on the same old theme. To truly take a systems approach, one must detach from this image and put the emphasis on creating a more prosperous industry that small-scale farmers can participate in.

I find it difficult to be so clinical about the whole matter, but I do believe it’s what’s needed to create large scale and lasting changes for farmers. My heart wants to take a farmer-first approach, but my head thinks it might be more prudent to focus elsewhere.


Swamp Kabwata

Swamp-front propety

We live in a swamp. It’s rainy season in Zambia, and rumour has it that an equatorial band of precipitation hasn’t made it’s regular annual drift south to Zimbabwe but stayed stubbornly stuck above us.

This means the neighbourhood road leading to our home has been hammered by rain almost daily. If the road was paved, it wouldn’t be a big deal. It the road had decent gravel and soil composition, it wouldn’t be a big deal. If the road had even the semblance of functional drainage, if might not have become a big deal.

The road has none of these things. It has become a big deal. Or, more precisely, a real big pain in the ass. 

You can see the photo. Cab drivers around town now remember my home address and the punishment their cars have taken getting me there. They’ve started declining my business.

I’m now frequenting our neighbourhood gym less often. In the past I had a nice jog to and from working out. Now, if I feel up to going, I put my gumboots on, slog out to the nearest paved road 400-meters away, then change into my sneakers and run carrying my gumboots the rest of the way.

Back at the house we’ve taken to laying concrete blocks as stepping stones in a snaking path down the driveway just to get out our gate. This works until our housemate, Marvin, needs his car.

I took to cursing out the local MP, Mr. Lubinda, for not doing something about the situation. But then the last taxi driver to accept my fare filled me in that Lubinda is from the PF party, not the ruling MMD, so his constituency funds are tied up in bureaucratic politicking. Sigh.

Which brings me to my conclusion. The quickest path to becoming the most popular President of Zambia for all time is this: JBR. Just Build Roads.

And ditches. Don’t forget about drainage. Goes to show what debts this world owes to civil engineering.*

*For the record, I was trained as an electrical engineer. I put this in here to say, “hey, if you or someone you loved ever thought of starting a road building company in Zambia, I’d be pleased as punch (and ready to buy shares).”

Maximum Tolerance to Failure v. Idiot-Proof

A wee bit overwrought for you business types

In a meeting with Dunavant, Zambia’s largest cotton producer, the managing director cuts me off in the middle of explaining our mobile payment system to say:

“Just do whatever you want as long as it’s idiot-proof.”

Considering that I was explaining a roll-out of this system to his field staff and shed managers, that could’ve been taken as a bit of a slight. Instead, I take it as a bit of classic business realism: even the simplest things will be screwed up by well-intentioned fools and it pays to be prepared for it.

Nothing mind-blasting here. But the reason it’s so refreshing is because so often the development sector just doesn’t get this. They’re more concerned with possibilities than what they can actually pull off.

This was duly noted by a crusty English development worker, Eric Dudley, when he wrote in his book “The Critical Villager” that development ideas should be engineered for “maximum tolerance to failure”. In effect, he was exhorting his readers to make their designs idiot-proof so as to actually achieve some success instead of swept away in delusions of what could have been.

“Maximum tolerance to failure” v. “idiot-proof”. The second is some much pithier. Leave it to ‘development’ as a whole to over-complicate things. Leave it to business to get things done.

It’s one more reason why the methods of most modern NGOs are hopelessly unsuitable to making things happen: it takes a veteran author coining an elaborate phrase to sum up an idea every mediocre businessperson already knows.

Probably looked better on paper

this probably looked better on paper

this probably looked better on paper

Um, ye-ah.

“Well, really, you see the thing is, Sir… we’ve had a down-turn in our last quarter.” 

“A down-turn?”

“Yeah, and, um, well finances have dried up, Sir, for the most part.”

“For the most part?”

“Yes, that’s what I said, for the most part. So, you see, we’ve had to put construction on temporary hold. We’ll refinance our debt, secure new lines of credit, and be back on track next month.”


“Well, actually, no. We’ve flat run out of money from betting the farm on copper prices. Those have tanked. So now I suggest we liquidate assets and get the heck outta dodge. The market for Zambian high-rise office space just fell of a cliff, and it’d be best if we weren’t the last ones to leave the party, if you catch my drift… Sir.”

“Um, ye-ah.”

“Ye-ah, Sir. This whole thing probably looked better on paper, huh?”

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.

It’s Independence Day and the power’s out.

Too few sightings todayIt’s Independence Day and the power’s out.

Not a big surprise, really. The load shedding schedule in the newspaper is really just a small fraction of the daily brown outs. Though it does make me wonder on this 45th birthday of Zambia’s, just how do Zambians connect to this holiday that celebrates the birth of their nation?

Talk to the old timers and you can hear about when crowds flocked to Independence Stadium in the tens of thousands for a raucous celebration with Coke and scones freely handed out to everyone. Bursting with pride and excitement were the Independence Days of back then.

But those are the same old timers that’ll tell me that our neighbourhood’s dusty road used to be paved and lined with streetlights with electricity flowing non-stop like Vic Falls after the rainy season.

A young Zambian co-worker, when I asked her what her Independence weekend plans would be, told me they’d be nothing out of the ordinary. “I don’t really connect with this holiday anymore,” she said. “Not many of my generation do.”

That seemed to sum up the situation in Lusaka today: the nation’s capital was celebrating the nation’s birthday with all the bravado of a laundromat’s Grand Opening. Hardly a flag or a banner to be seen in town, though sure, a few more people than normal were sporting Zambia’s green, black, red and orange. Maybe the bravado of a regular season hockey game.

Though I don’t know the flow of Zambian history like a local does. Did celebrating Independence Day quickly change from lively to not-so-much once copper prices tanked in the 80s? Or was it a gradual decline from exuberance to this? I’m still trying to calibrate—maybe I shouldn’t have such a foreign look of shock at the low-key nature of this national holiday. Maybe the Chez Ntemba dance club will be particularly lively tonight, like July 1st on Whyte Ave.

For now, though, power’s off, dinner’s on hold, neighbourhood’s quiet, mosquitoes are out—Independence Day, check.

Links We Liked


Nostalgia in high momentum form.

Forget development–the actual toughest job out there.

Learning about my breakfast cereal of choice.


Interesting debate: An African assessment of African governance versus the academic freedom of Western researchers. I give style points to the former.

Wafer thin margins for those selling old t-shirts (do you miss your “Waco Texas Swim Club” t?) from the US (and Canada) in Liberia.

I wish I were home to see this movie. Sigh.


Maslow in Africa: A Hierarchy of Opportunity

FSRP paper states the government has not focused on eliminating real “market failures” that small holders face and suggests 7 areas that need attention.


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.
>> more

Twitter (Hans)

Twitter (Graham)

Twitter (Thulasy)