SMALL-SCALE FARMERS’ STRATEGIES IN DEALING WITH CRISES: AN ANALYSIS OF HOUSEHOLD RESPONSES TO CRISIS IN FOUR VILLAGES IN RURAL ZIMBABWE
Crises caused by natural and human-induced disasters have always been part of farmers’ lives, but recently they have proliferated through the emergence of new economic, political and environmental challenges. Generally, it is the ordinary poor people, many of them living in the vulnerable contexts of the rural tropics, who are bearing the brunt of these changes. This is particularly true for many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, where more than two-thirds of the population still depend on agriculture, and a large proportion of rural households suffer from poverty, food insecurity and social unrest. In such contexts, national governments and numerous NGOs, often supported by international donors, become active in supporting small farmers with training programs, the diffusion of technology, credits, social payments, subsidies and infrastructural investments. These efforts have had a remarkable success, except in stopping a general process of local marginalization and environmental degradation. In the end, the vast majority of small-scale farming families are left on their own to face the challenge of sustaining their livelihoods and guarantee food for their families under precarious conditions. More effective measures to support poor rural farmers in Africa are urgently needed that take better account of and stimulate their adaptive capacity to find responses to the manifold challenges.
The research in this thesis aimed to generate empirical insights into farmers’ responses to crises as a basis to supporting small-scale farmers more effectively, particularly those in Sub-Saharan Africa, in times of crisis. This includes three specific objectives: (1) to describe how crises changes the conditions for small-scale farmers’ activities; (2) to learn how small-scale farmers are responding to these changes; and (3) to find out what factors are driving farmers’ 'decisions.
To comply with these objectives, the study analyzed in depth the dynamics in four rural villages in Zimbabwe, which represent three typical agricultural contexts in Sub-Saharan Africa: (1) communal agricultural lands with traditional social configurations; (2) agricultural landscapes formed by individualized settlers; and (3) areas resettled in the course of land redistribution programs. Zimbabwe was chosen because it is a prime example of a crisis that brought about severe multi-layered political, economic, social and environmental challenges, especially during the presidency of Robert G. Mugabe between 2000 and 2017. Data were gathered, processed and analyzed using a mixed qualitative and quantitative approach. Household surveys were conducted with lead farmers and extension agents to gain an understanding of the factors and conditions that influence farmers’ behavior and choices and to establish categories of farmers. Households were surveyed to determine their characteristics at the personal level (family size, head, level of education, financial situation, and farm experience), the farm level (assets, size, land tenure, remoteness) and the institutional level (extension services, financial support, social organization). Besides, farmers’ households that represented the strategies typically used to cope with the situation of crisis were selected for in-depth interviews to learn about the operational details, underlying rationalities and effects of the strategies they had adopted. Expert interviews and participatory mapping exercises with local experts and leaders were conducted to gain an understanding of how the Zimbabwean crisis changed the conditions under which the farmers live and to grasp the range and spatial relevance of strategies adopted by the farmer in response to the changed conditions. Also, secondary sources were systematically explored for relevant information, including reports from international organizations, non-governmental agencies, local NGOs, public research organizations, farmers’ groups, dairy associations, Internal Savings and Lending Clubs (ISACs) and government agencies.
The study made three principal findings: (1) crises strongly affected farming households; (2) most farmers managed to respond effectively to crisis situations; and (3) support and resource endowments are critical to overcoming crises.
The crises strongly affected farmers. More than fifteen years of political and economic crises in Zimbabwe, in combination with frequent droughts, profoundly changed the conditions under which rural farmers live and produce. Most strikingly, the manifestation of this complex situation of crises was the breakdown of public services, including progressive reductions of public services providing farmers with technical and financial assistance and, partly related to this, increases in corruption. For example, although the ruling party announced million-dollar tractor and farm mechanization programs during elections, not one of the farmers from the four case studies received anything. Most critical was also the fact that the state-driven Grain Marketing Board failed to continue offering support to maize farmers with regard to pricing and payment patterns, which led to a massive decline in the production of maize, the key business of many farmers at that time. This withdrawal of the state was further compounded by a massive distortion of markets, which for the farmers made the profitable marketing of their own production considerably more difficult or even impossible, as well as making agricultural input prices unaffordable. The latter development forced a majority of farmers to skip using fertilizers, certified seeds and pesticides. Some few only managed to apply sub-optimal amounts of fertilizers occasionally on smaller parts of their fields. Devastatingly, farmers also suffered animal losses to drought (especially the extreme drought of the 2015/2016 season) and animal diseases that hampered their practice of using manure to maintain soil fertility. In parallel, farmers were heavily affected by climate change, manifested through an increase in dryness, soil erosion and unpredictable rainfall. This was especially hard for farmers acting in the dry conditions that are typical of large parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, where water is the limiting factor of production and where agricultural activities depend on the predictability of rainfall during the sowing period and the availability of groundwater or water reservoirs in the mountains during the growing period. This critical situation was, at least partly, mitigated for more than a third of farmers (38%) through the intervention of donors, NGOs and private companies, who, in contrast to the government’s initial strategy of diffusing technical packages, promoted low-cost technologies in the case of development organizations and contract farming in the case of private companies. Nevertheless, the situation of crisis resulted in considerable losses of harvests, plants and animals, particularly in very dry years (2002-2003, and 2015-2016), when some crops were a complete write-off, but also due to political violence, when livestock and harvests were looted, for example, in the aftermath of the 2008 election. Despite these difficulties, the vast majority of families remained on their properties and tried to cope with the challenging situation. In the resettlement area too, where the government distributed the land of expropriated white farmers, all those farmers who had settled there at the beginning of 2000 remained on their farms and in 2015were joined by new farmers settling on grazing land. Roughly a third of households (29%), however, decided to send a member or two to urban centers, abroad or other farms to search for remunerative employment off the family farm. As it was mostly young male adults who were drawn into leaving the farm for jobs, across all case studies it was common for women, children and the elderly to be left with the task of managing farm operations.
Effective responses of the farmers. In response to the situation of crisis, the farmers in the case studies employed a wide range of strategies. Responses included orientation towards livestock, the reduction of the land area under cultivation, the adoption of low-input farming systems, intensification, and on and off-farm diversification, as well as migration, a re-orientation to subsistence farming and the unsustainable exploitation of common resources. Most farmers combined two or more of these responses. Where possible nearly all households (84%) started to buy livestock when a crisis broke, whether cattle or small livestock, the latter being seen as resistant to drought and more easily convertible into cash. To improve food security, many farmers (71%) reduced and concentrated inputs on the most suitable parcels of land to optimize the application of scarce resources. Upon realizing surpluses, some farmers (15%) then included tobacco as a cash crop, or even diversified their production portfolios more strongly (20%). Only traditional dairy farmers (10 %) mostly continued their production because, often belonging to the
second or third generation of farmers, they had the knowledge and experience to continue and even intensify production. Also, migration and, relatedly, the transfer of remittances became a central resource for many families (29%). Accordingly, concentration and diversification were closely linked with an orientation to the market. The farmers who produced for markets were well connected with relevant platforms and networks (e.g., tobacco auction floors, milk collection points, the Grain Marketing Board, millers, etc.) and used their surpluses to invest in the farm and grow their asset base. Those farmers who received remittances also invested in farming, often accompanied by a diversification of production. The switch to low-cost technologies and the concentration of production on the most suitable parcels of land massively reduced the dependence on government subsidies. In parallel, many farmers managed to significantly enhance their areal productivity, so that overall production remained stable, despite a significant reduction in the land area under cultivation. Some farmers even managed to increase their gross incomes by intelligently combining on-farm with non-farm strategies. The concentration of farming activities on the most fertile land parcels also allowed fields to be left fallow and promoted other ecologically valuable land-use resources, such as woodlots. This effect was particularly visible in contexts that already showed a high level of degradation. Only 7% of farmers became engaged in unsustainable exploitative activities, but, every tenth household was forced to re-orient itself towards subsistence farming. However, about 75% of households in the case-study sites had somehow found effective ways to cope with crises, implying that the vast majority of farmers substantially changed or strongly adapted their livelihood strategies. While in 2000 most farmers were dedicated to the production of maize and dairy for income generating purposes, in 2016 livelihood strategies were diversified and included the production of food, dairy and cash crops, as well as off-farm employment.
Support and resource endowments are critical. The specific choice and quality of farmers’ responses varied strongly in accordance with institutional, farm and personal features, except the consistent orientation towards livestock across all farmers and case studies. In particular, a set of four factors had a highly significant positive influence on the successful actions of farmers, based on concentration, market orientation and diversification, namely the availability of farm assets (particularly ownership of cattle), financial support, the level of social organization and formal tenure arrangements. Market orientation was also favored by accessibility. Other factors had a comparatively low influence on farmers’ responses, except a preference for diversification by older and female-headed households. Concerning remittance support, higher educational levels and the good financial situation of the households played a moderately positive role. The picture was less clear concerning factors that influenced responses with questionable livelihood outcomes, such as re-orientation towards subsistence farming (lack of assets, low level of education, households headed by females without husbands) and exploitative strategies (male-headed households and households headed by females without husbands). There were also large differences between the case studies in respect of the factors listed above, partly due to important contextual differences. Most strikingly, the better the situation of a case study with regard to accessibility, water availability and social organization, the stronger the external support. In response, more farmers in the favored case studies exploited the opportunities offered to them mainly by tobacco companies and development organizations (irrigation and dairy farming). One exception was the resettlement case study, which, as a contested area, was disregarded by development organizations, despite favorable environmental conditions. Accordingly, in the least favorable case study, “community in impoverished landscape”, households were largely left to face their difficult situations alone. They were more likely to re-orient themselves to subsidence farming and switched to small livestock, thereby managing at least to secure their food basis.
In particular, these results provide three important suggestions for how farmers can be better supported in crises. First, effective water management is key. There is an urgent need to diffuse in- field water-harvesting techniques and to further optimize appropriate agricultural practices, such as mulching and gravity-fed irrigation. Second, farmers are creative in finding solutions. This includes
farming responses, as well as off-farm strategies. Both are effective from a local perspective. However, only the better-off farmers may have the means and capacities for the necessary investments, whereas the challenges may exceed the possibilities of poorer farmers. The proper management of livestock and the use of manure in agricultural production is another important requisite. Third, support measures are critical. However, rather than distributing of costly technology packages, support should take advantage of and promote capacity of farmers to take meaningful decisions. Thus, support should build on the resources and capacities that are available locally and accordingly highlight low-cost strategies and efficient water-use management, stimulate financially attractive options for diversification, and develop existing market opportunities further rather than creating new ones. In this regard, in particular, the frequently observed strategy of farmers to reduce and concentrate inputs on the most suitable land shows an immense potential for optimization. Supporting such promising attempts by farmers to build robust farming systems following their capacities and interests can help achieve development, social equality and sustainability in Sub-Saharan Africa.
To operationalize such an approach requires well-trained extension agents working in well-equipped organizations. Also, the provision of tenure security plays a critical role in motivating farmers to invest and develop the land, as well as to turn land into a bankable asset and collateral that enables farmers to secure bank loans for farm improvements. Equally important is investment in research and development regarding basic infrastructure, particularly the maintenance of public infrastructure, such as roads and bridges, which have largely been neglected due to economic hardships. The government can also assist farmers by providing market facilities for small livestock and small grains whose markets are still limited. The private sector has and continues to play an important role in supporting farmers through contract farming arrangements. But they need to consider more intensively weaker farmers who are located far from markets and have to cope with unfavorable situations. Farmers’ associations should prioritize programs and actions that support the frequent and most common response of concentration, as well as market participation and diversification of production. Through the local sharing of information and knowledge, they can guide farmers in reducing their dependence on government subsidies and the use of costly inputs such as fertilizers, certified seeds and pesticides. The farmers themselves need to organize themselves better in order to lobby collectively and campaign for technical assistance, credits and secure tenure arrangements. Farmers should intensify crop–livestock integration with livestock, thus equipping farmers with the means to produce much needed inexpensive animal manure to improve soil fertility and to opt for long-term strategies that protect their resource base. Finally, research also has its part to play. More knowledge is needed about farmers’ actions and rationalities as a basis for finding more effective ways of consolidating the socio- ecological diversity of Zimbabwe, Sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere, despite the political, economic and climatic challenges that are to be expected in the future.