Chaptr 6: Regeneration

Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms and the grasses will grow in the streets of every city in the country.

William Jennings Bryan, 1826

The first step is re-financing the rural sector. Protecting the soil and the forest is not in the short-term interest of under-financed small farmers. The small farmer is rightly seen as potentially the most land-careful user of Africa’s fragile soils. Yet at the moment the farmer is its greatest abuser.

It is only recently that the potential of mixed cropping and other traditional techniques have been recognized by a research community which was obsessed by European or North American agriculture. Agricultural research needs to be reorientated towards an analysis of the various eco­logical factors and their relation to the socio-economic character of Africa. Interdisciplinary teams have to work hand in hand with the farmers and herders. This calls for humility in dealing with complexity.

Research during the colonial period was almost entirely devoted to plantation crops – oil palm, coffee, and the like – rather than popular food crops, and to crossing local cattle with temperate breeds to raise meat production. Such experiments produced cattle which need too much care to be suitable for life in the bush. Since 1970, there has been no shortage of funds for research in Africa, but it has still not been sufficiently concentrated on the dryland crops and roots and tubers which poorer people eat. Maize research, for example, has received much greater funding than sorghum or millet which need less water and are therefore more relevant to the drought-prone areas.

International agricultural research centres have been a major contributing factor to the success of Asian agriculture. In Africa, this is less true. Where research is appropriate, the relationship with national research networks is sometimes not close enough for really systematic contact, through these institutions, with the farmers themselves. Often, data is collected in national research centres but seldom analysed. For example, weather statistics of relevance to farmers have been collected in the Sahel since early this century and yet, for lack of funds and co-ordination, they are rarely collated, even though they could greatly improve scientists certainty about whether or not the area is getting drier.

The usefulness of successful research into African food crops can hardly be overstressed. The most relevant research has always been done by peasant farmers themselves. Anthropological work has shown that local farmers’ knowledge of the environment in which they work is highly complex and organized, as are their own experiments with plant and animal breeding. Yet scientists working on the same problems have rarely collaborated in the past with farmers in the field. Research will only be useful if it produces innovations which constitute a reasonable risk for peasant farmers, and which is consistent, rather than at odds, with well-tried traditional techniques.

First the colonial authorities, then local urban elites and aid agencies alike have assumed that peasant farming methods were downright inefficient and that their unwillingness to adopt new technologies was a mark of their ignorance. Such judgements did not look at the innovations from the point of view of the peasant. A high-yielding variety of maize requires fertilizer, pesticides and water to attain its full potential, and if any of these factors is absent, might give a lower yield than the traditional variety. With a limited amount to invest, a poor peasant cannot afford the risk of going into debt to buy the seed and then not being able to pay the debt back when the crop fails for lack of fertilizer or pesticide – or because there is not enough rain. Building on peasant knowledge and needs requires a participatory approach and a willingness to rough it in the field. Too many scientists still prefer their laboratories.

The technologies on offer from the developed world have often· been singularly inappropriate to the needs of small farmers. In the Sahel region, for example, during the 1970s, donors were keen to fund settled cattle ranching projects which failed to raise the incomes of pastoralists or improve the quality of pasture. A recent Dutch study revealed ‘that traditional herders produce as much protein per hectare as do ranchers in areas of equal rainfall in the United States and Australia; the Sahelian herders, how­ ever, accomplish this with infinitely less mechanical energy inputs, relying for the most part on manpower’. Donors must break the habit of constantly looking down upon local knowledge.

Even while research is being reorientated, and reconnected with peasant and herder agriculture, there are a number of ways, based on already-known peasant techniques, to maintain the fertility of land under shifting agriculture, and to improve its productivity. These include growing crops between rows of fast-growing trees, which both protect the soil from wind and water erosion, and provide fodder for animals. Small-scale water collecting schemes such as planting crops on ridges which trap water in between, have proved quite successful. Another technique is to sow crops without initially tilling the soil. This reduces the amount of soil erosion. Mixed cropping, where two or more plants are grown simultaneously on one plot, can give higher overall yields than when a single variety is used to cover the whole plot. This practice, used by African farmers for centuries, used to be considered inefficient. But as well as being productive, it is a good form of insurance. If there is a plague of insects, for example, with a partiality for one crop but not another, the farmer’s losses are less.

While scientists should look for traditional knowledge there is no reason why this cannot be blended with modern, but appropriate, innovation. After all the land has to bear many more people than it used to. The rural sector must be dynamic but in a way that takes account of ecological constraint and traditional wisdom.

Extension workers, the agricultural workers who work with farmers, must get closer to them in helping to identify and resolve problems. This would diminish their role as the purveyors of official wisdom from the city.

Until now, the small farming sector has been left to its own devices. Governments have been preoccupied with the urban sector and with large-scale and cash-crop farming. Now they need to shift resources to small-scale farming, especially for subsistence food production. But they also cannot easily shift resources away from the urban sector. Botswana, Gambia and Tanzania do plan to increase public investment in agriculture within their existing national plans. Others also intend to redirect resources towards agriculture. In fact, about thirty-five African countries are now preparing, or already have national food strategies. But they all operate under severe financial constraints.

Among the policy changes urged on African governments by donors are more realistic prices for both food and export crops to give the farmer a fair return. The donors, however, do now recognize that these policy changes are not the only key to Africa’s agricultural production problems. Higher real prices for what the peasants grow may not always encourage them to produce more. There must be adequate facilities favourable enough to them so that they can both sell their surplus production and become themselves consumers. That means goods must be available in their villages which they would want to spend their extra income on. Transport and storage must be improved. Farmers may have to grow a lot more before they really have spare food to sell, which they do not want to eat, or store, themselves. Higher official prices may actually mean they just sell legally what they were selling on the black market before. Above all, liberalizing food prices without ensuring that the small farmer’s position in the grain trade is secure could lead to the power of the big farmer and merchant becoming greater.

The different ways in which peasants might respond to a rise in the prices of the crops they produce reflects that the African peasant as a single category exists only in the minds of non-African observers. Farmers work in infinitely varied surroundings, and relations between farmers are frequently complex. Observers compound the mistake of treating all peasants as the same when they assume that all peasants are men. In some parts of rural Africa, women farmers provide up to 90 per cent of the food. On top of their work on the land, they invariably prepare and cook the food as well. In West Africa, up to 80 per cent of all trade in food is handled by women. Migrant labour, especially in southern Africa, means that today, not only do women do most of the work on farms, they often head rural households during their husbands’ prolonged absence. Their work as decision­ makers and labourers (and the competing demands on their time made by domestic labour) has been notoriously neglected in past agricultural development efforts. Quite simply, not enough is known.

The rising incomes of some townspeople mean that they invest in agriculture, producing changes in the ownership of rural assets which has been insufficiently taken account of. In Nigeria, subsidised tractors and bank loans to farmers have been easily co-opted by a small class of ‘overnight’ farmers – urban businessmen, civil servants, district chiefs and army officers. Famine, and consequent rural impoverishment, offers city people further opportunities to buy into the rural sector on the cheap.

The small farmer does not have to fend off only local businessmen: Western multinationals still hold considerable sway. Multinational companies handle much of the processing of cash crops, from the time they leave the African farmer to the moment they reach the consumer overseas. Their influence sways the aid world too. Agri­business staff pass in and out of the big development agencies such as the World Bank, The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the EEC as consultants. With their apparent savvy and local knowledge from many years in Africa, they have kept the candle of large-scale farming alight for too long in the aid world.

And while it would be equally unbalanced to deny any role for large-scale farming, it can safely be said that as a sector, it is well able to look after itself. Large farmers have political influence and access to capital. It is the small-scale sector that needs help.

The challenge now, for donor agencies and governments alike, is to find ways to foster appropriate research and to fund the small, rural institutions – itinerant credit banks, grain storage co-operatives, farmers’ seed-testing groups and the like – which will lead to a renaissance of the rural sector. In the past, they have been considered too small to attract donors anxious to keep administrative overheads down by making a few big grants and loans rather than a lot of small ones.

Here we describe an example of sensitive foreign aid to support nomadic pastoralists in Niger. It is far removed from the grandiose schemes which some might still_b­e tempted to recommend to beat back the desert. The nomadic cattle-raisers suffered more than any other people in the Sahel during the 1968 to 1973 drought, but their discomfort did not end when the rains returned. The region was inundated with large-scale, untested, development projects, launched as a reaction to the drought. As a result, in the eyes of one observer, the people were used as guinea pigs of twenty-one agricultural projects of all types evaluated in 1980, only two were found to have achieved their objectives. As the experts dream up solutions to the spreading desert, the nomads are not given much say. In the 1960s and 1970s, cattle ranching was the rage At Toukounos and Sayam in Niger, for example, huge fenced ranches were established, but herders voted with their feet. A herder’s livelihood depends on being able to shift his herds to different pastures according to the weather. Staying in one place in the Sahel is not viable for a herder (unless a vastly expensive artificial irrigated environment has been created and plenty of fertilizer is available).

The fashion then shifted towards persuading herders to graze in a systematic way, improving water resources and ascribing exclusive right over lands to particular herding groups. Both fixed land rights create difficulties for nomads,.

Over a year several different groups traditionally exploit the same tracts of land in turn.

Now, herders in Niger’s pastoral zone have been asked what kind of development help they want. In 1979, USAID in association with the government of Niger, established the Niger Range and Livestock Project. The aim was to increase livestock production by improving both human and animal health and by restoring the income of livestock owners in the pastoral zones. Nothing so unusual in that. But the project managers took the brave decision to do nothing until the nomads themselves had been asked what they needed. Two years of research by an experienced team of Nigerians and nomad experts finally produced some novel proposals.

There are no shortcuts to an aid process which seeks out the views of prospective beneficiaries first. Getting answers out of the herders was not easy. The 1973 drought had produced a harvest of academics, journalists and agency officials asking questions in the Sahel. Barely a single herder was untouched by this information-gathering machine. But few benefits resulted for the nomads, who consequently became reluctant to talk.

By reaching out to Africa’s rural poor, aid agencies encounter cultural and linguistic barriers. They are often dealing with illiterate people, not used to a helping hand from the state. In our Niger example, researchers learned how nomads saw their own problems by adapting a local game played with counters and holes scooped out of the sand. Interestingly, over-grazing and desertification were not on the nomads’ list. The problems were: animal and human wealth; the high price of millet in the dry season; how to build up stocks of herder-owned animals; personal credit problems which force the sale of male cattle before they have reached their top prices; and a forest service which fines herders when their goats and camels eat trees .

These are the symptoms of poverty. Tackling them may seem a roundabout way of dealing with environmental degradation, particularly when the prospective beneficiaries do not even see environmental protection as a problem. But these herders are the crucial actors. Their habits make, or stop, the desert. Their interest must be engaged in improving the habitat. Such a process starts with listening to them and proceeds through alleviating their poverty to teaching them better ways of looking after a countryside that they then feel they have a stake in. Although physical recovery from the last drought was adequate (the estimated 40 per cent fall in herd numbers has been made good) patterns of ownership have changed. Poorer nomads in the Sahel live by looking after ‘entrusted cattle’ – animals which belong to newly rich absentee owners, merchants, and civil servants – in return for the animals ‘ milk alone. In parts of Mali, up to 50 per cent of the cattle are owned by such absentee non-nomads.

How can the herder’s hand be strengthened? USAID decided to set up herders’ associations, an idea which had been successfully used on a nearby voluntary agency experiment. Each association may be lent a small fund with which to tackle herders’ problems. Pilot associations were established and the project can be considered a success. Yet even its beneficiaries have taken a hammering in the present drought. People have been forced to migrate away from the project area and unless the government shows a determination to keep the project going, it may fail.

It is clear, therefore, that aid donors can make their money produce higher returns if they will take the revolutionary step of putting credit into the hands of nomads who previously have had no access to such finance. Like any other business people, if they have no money to replace worn-out capital goods, in their case animals, their enterprise runs down. So each association is allotted a loan according to its size (usually around $6000) to be used as a revolving credit fund and also a cereal fund of about $4500, to be used to buy cereals just after harvest when they are cheapest. The whole project for five years is to cost the donor $19 million – a lot of money, but a small part of what, say, a dam would cost. The measures will cost $600 per beneficiary.

The introduction of credit, but also the possibility of money savings, should, in theory, reduce the incentive to keep as big a herd as possible because it was formerly the only sort of asset available to the nomad.

But it may be that the only satisfactory expression of wealth for this group is extra cattle ownership. Just restoring the viability of nomad life may not surmount the plain fact that there are too many people now trying to live on this land.

We have gone into this project at some length because its small-scale, beneficiary-orientated approach seems to us so much more appropriate than the large capital-intensive projects favoured in earlier development thinking. There is now a willingness amongst African governments to direct more resources to the rural sector. From countries like Malawi and Kenya, which have long emphasized their small farming sector, to those like Zimbabwe where peasant farming is growing fast, to others like Somalia where recent price liberalization has led to a 40 per cent increase in sorghum and banana production, there is a new will. This must be built on. What is required is support for this direction: a research orientation which comes up with schemes that reflect the realities of local farming, and donor assistance to help re-finance the rural sector. However, good intentions are not enough. Such an approach cuts across what has been the momentum of aid. In the next chapter we look at how aid might be adapted to this new approach.