Friday, August 28, 2015

What is a farmer?

In my recent trip to Kisumu, I joint a focus group discussion with farmers to discover how they see their future. We had two questions we had asked farmers individually :
  •  How will your livelihood strategy change?
a participant weighting her future livelihood strategy
    1. off farm activities
    2. farm diversification (new farm produce)
    3. commercialization of existing farm produce
    4. increasing farm size 
  • How do you think will you income be composed ?
    1. cultivation of food
    2. cultivation of non-food
    3. manufacture
    4. trade
    5. livestock
What stroke me in this discussion is that non of the farmer has put any weight to off-farm activities. All farmer intend to remain in agriculture, despite of the fact that many of them are already dependent on off farm income, for example by driving motorbikes. Also when one asks them about future income, few think it will be coming from food and feed productions, but from trade.

I was very puzzled about this result, as most of these farmers are cultivating on less than an acre of land and the proximity to Kisumu town offers plenty of off farm opportunities. My first explanation of this phenomenon is a self-selection process : those people who bet on off farm activities have probably already left, and therefore did not participate in our focus group discussion. But in a second stage, I turned to Irene, my colleague who is organizing these focus group discussion brilliantly and who very obviously has a full time job with ICRAF in Kisumu, and asked her : so are you farming? she said yes.
Irene, the farmer?
How? she is working full time just the same way i do in Nairobi... So i dug further, and i discovered that she and her family owns land, relatively far away from Kisumu, but she is investing on this farm, as she can afford buying agricultural inputs and therefore makes the critical decisions on the farm. However, she is not doing the farming there, she has family member to do it. So she is basically a phone farmer.

It was a great discussion through which i understood the very strong linkage that Kenyan have with their land. As long as one own or cultivate a square meter of greens, one will declare oneself as a farmer. So no wonder non of our participants will ever step out of agriculture, they will take up jobs in town and run their cultivation of 1/8 of an acre before going to work and when coming home and still be proud farmers.
a phone farmer?
I reminds me of my PhD time in Wageningen, I also owned a garden, where I was cultivating my own food. However, i never felt like a farmer, i would have refereed to myself as a happy gardener. Also recently i started to plant salads and courgette on my very small balcony in Nairobi, I wonder if under Kenyan definition i am a farmer too?

Let go back to our farmer Irene, she is working for agricultural research, probably earning a decent wage, and building up a network in town that will allow her to get good market access. I would not be astonished if in a few years she would decide to invest her money to make her land a commercial production bringing high value products to market and hire people to do this for her. For example, she could invest in a well and then cultivate berries, or go for intensive livestock keeping.

a junior farmer?
So when we are talking of smallholder farmers who are we talking about? are we scientists asking the right questions? are we able to differentiate between farmers like Irene and the smallholder farmer relying on his land only? Do we still talk of farmers when someone has a full time off farm job and is cultivating her/his own food? When we talk about commercialization, which farmer are we talking about? Where are the decisions about agriculture taken? And if we talk about the smallholder revolution, do we really want to focus on the poor smallholders relying fully on their land with a lack of capital and knowledge? or shouldn't we focus on farmers like Irene who have the knowledge, the capacity and the capital to commercialize and potentially offer employment to smallholders in the surroundings in a less favorable situation?

So what's your definition of a farmer?

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