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?

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

A vision for the pig value chain in Hoima Uganda

During my field trip to Hoima in Uganda, we also went to discuss with the local governmental representative. We met directors from different departments, livestock, agriculture, environment.
We learned a lot about the local crops and the challenge of spatial planning to preserve the environment when all the GIS data is hold centrally by the government in Kampala and not shared to the regions. But what impressed me most is the vision the director for livestock, a vet by profession had.

The construction of the first commercial feed mill

I asked him, if i come back in 5 -7 years how do you think the pig value chain in Hoima will look like? Is there scope for smallholders in the area?
For him, there will a small amount of big pig farmers who will own around 200 pigs. These farm will shape the market and hold the power, however they won't be able to assure consistency of the market and therefore will rely on smallholders. As such the big farms will insure the market linkages and be the intermediaries for the smallholders in the area.

A pig in the first commercial farm in Hoima
These big farms will mainly rely on commercial feeds that may be produced locally but also imported. It is very difficult to predict where the big farm will emerge as it depends on the entrepreneurial spirit of some individual and the location of the land they already own or can acquire. But given the high requirement for transport both for feed and the animals, it is expected that these farms will emerge near to the current big roads and near to easy access to water (perennial rivers or high groundwater tables).

I am looking forward to translate this vision into a scenario for our impact assessment model and hopefully come up with some spatial planning suggestions for the area.

Friday, August 14, 2015

How do smallholders see their future?

I am just back from Kisumu, the Kenyan town on the shores of Lake Victoria. For research program Humidtropics, I joind my colleagues to join a focus group discussion with farmers in Kisumu county, in Nyanza village.

In collaboration with ICRAF, the world agro-forestry center, we want to understand aspiration of smallholder farmers better and link their vision to more global scenarios.

We met a quite homogeneous community, or at least a selection of that community. Whereas women first mentioned health and men infrastructure as major improvement, both came up with improved agriculture as second.

I mostly followed the women's group who had ranked water management, market access,  better agricultural practices as priorities to work on.

Next to a focus group discussion investigating the community vision, we also asked farmers about their personal aspiration given their own context. 

Most farmers would like to improve their livelihood though agricultural diversification and commercialization. Some of them also wanted to expand their farm. This sounds very unlikely to me, as population growth in still high and about 1/3 of the participant were already farming on 1/4 of an acre. I was then told that communities nearer to the lake focus more on fish and therefore neglect the land, and it might be possible to rent land there and commute for farming.

They see that new technologies, crops and breeds can help them to be more profitable, but they cannot go for industrial production because they lack in capital nor they can access it. This became very obvious in the male group, with discussion about improved local chicken which they all wanted to have, but not the industrial exotic breed (broiler). No one came up with the strategy to increase off farm activities.

However, if we ask them by 2025 where will your income come from, many of them have actually indicated that will depend more on off farm income, mainly coming from trade of agricultural products rather than just selling the product to an trader.

From the smallholders' perspective there is a clear space for smallholders in food production in the next 10 years. They will diversify their production, intensify where they can and jointly access markets for better prices. I am looking forward to try to link their vision to different scenarios and investigate how smallholders livelihood will change...

Thursday, August 13, 2015

commercialing the value chain : the example of Devenish

One of the most fascinating project i came across during my Uganda field trip, is the so- called Devenish project.

It is a project supported by Irish aid, and though no one we meet knew what Devenish stands for, Devenish is an Irish animal feed producer, that is present in several African countries but not yet Uganda.

The place we visited is a pig model farm, which is very well developed. I was impressed by the high level hygiene rules.

The model farm is actually i breeding farm, that just got a knew pig breed from Farmer's choice, a company in Kenya.
They have the pigs in different breeding units, and a breeding cycle is between 7-8 month.
When we visited about the farm just got the improved breeds and was function at about 1/4th of its capacity. However, the farm was extremely well organized and had all procedures well noted down in each unit.
They are producing there own feed, following an own formula mainly from local products. The project is also building a feed mills next door in order to produce local commercial feed.

The major output now is selling piglets from the new breed to local farmer.
the construction of the new mill 

The farm is currently run by 3 employees of which the only women is the responsible and a vet. I tried to investigate the ownership structure behind the project, but nobody really seemed to know. It seems that at the end of the project, the model farm should be run by the farmer cooperative to which farmer John belongs to.
Clearly, the only missing part of the value chain is the slaughter house, which is now in discussion at Irish aid.

Will that transfer to the cooperative work? who will be the winners and the looser of this project? how will it link up with rest of the value chain? I really want to go back in 5 years and see how this project will evolve.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Towards contract farming : when oil reshape agriculture

In my last blog post, i introduced you with the farmer John, who is a very market oriented smallholder. I had mentioned that he mainly produces horticultural products. When he listed the vegetables he produces, beyond cabbage, tomatoes and onions as it would be expected, he also produced broccoli, cauliflower, beet roots and many other vegetables that are mainly consumed by foreigners.

In the discussion we discovered that oil was found in the area and many Chinese and other foreigners are coming into the region asking for these high value vegetables. Through tradelink an NGO the link to the hotels serving these foreigners has been set up, and the hotels set orders to the cooperative of farmers John's belongs too.

I tried to investigate the terms of this contract, hotels suggest what to plant and buy at fair prices, however the risk of production remains fully at the farmer. If there are no foreigners, then hotels who set the order will not buy, and the farmer will remain with unsold without any compensation.

On the other hands, if there is also no penalty if a farmer cannot provide. John however mentioned that it has never happened that the cooperative as such could not provide. Indeed, the different farmers coordinate their planting to make sure that the cooperative as such always cannot provide.

This is one of the first contract i came across linking smallholders to high value markets. Yet the risk remains fully at the farmer and is not yet shared across the value chain. But there is no doubt, this is an example where oil has reshaped agriculture.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Organic agriculture in the developing world : a steady state or a transition?

In my recent trip to Uganda, we visited farmer John in the surroundings of Hoima. He is a member of a farmer cooperative (who is also the cooperative behind the Irish aid pork value chain project). What stroke me was how well organized he is. He got mentoring from tradelink an NGO that thought him how to write and implement a business plan. He has the best documented smallholder farm i have ever visited.
John the farmer with all his documents
John therefore knows very well what is profitable and what is not. He used to have broiler chicken but he gave it up as it was not profitable.

John's farm is mainly horticulture, which he produces by irrigating his plots near to the perennial river. He has a diesel water pump. He also has a cow, he just sold the other two to pay school fees for his last born. In addition he also has 2 pigs that are tied to a tree during the day and fed on waste. This is his trial, he is intending to join the new pig value chain project (described in an up-coming blog post) and keep at least 20 pigs.

What fascinated me was his claim to be an organic farmer, and he is hosting students from the local university to test and compare organic/natural pesticides and disease management methods. But in his speech there was no ideology, no harmony with nature or whatever story we usually hear from organic farmers.

I understood quickly that John is organic because organic agriculture reduces his input costs, as natural disease management is cheaper than paying for chemicals.

For the first time in my life, i understood that having an organic African agriculture, as promoted by so many NGOs in the Western world is maybe more than an illusion. But it is not a reality because it is good for nature, but because it might be the most profitable way of production in high potential areas in East Africa.

 Is it a steady state? at current farm gate prices organic agriculture is an optimum. However, if food prices continue increasing and if the marginal returns of cash crop is higher than the marginal cost of chemicals, then if i follow John's decision making correctly, then organic might just have been a transition.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The other end of the value chain : from the slaughtering to pig joints

On my recent trip to Uganda we not only looked at pig producers but also tired to understand the value chain as a whole. So we decided to visit a pork joint, a pig eatery and figure out where that pig comes from.

Choose your piece of pig you would like to eat
The pork just hangs there, and people can come to choose the piece of meat one wants and it gets roasted for you. You can also buy pork fresh and roast it at home.

Then it is roasted for you
The roasted meat comes with tomato, onion, and boiled cassava. 

Because keeping meat needs a fridge, the simplest way to manage demand fluctuation is to keep animal live and slaughter them when needed. Therefore there is a stable with animal ready to slaughter.
The best conservation of meat : alive animal waiting for being slaughtered
Farmers usually call the owner of the joint and offer to sell their animal. Then farmers bring their animals on the agreed day. Farmers get paid an agreed spot price for the amount of fresh meat which is weighted after slaughtering. When animals did not get enough proteins in their feed, then the animal looks big but has a lot of fat, for which the farmer does not get paid for. That's why farmers often feel cheated.
My colleague Simon interviewing the owner of the pork joint
We then went to see the "slaughter place", i was expecting to see some place with some hygiene, but found only a piece of land which burnt earth and a pot of hot water. No table, no hygiene.
the "slaughter place"
The place is located near to a river where the water is taken from to boil. Hot water is needed to take the hair away from the pork. Hair are burnt on the spot. Intestines are given away for free, or are buried. All other part of the pork, head, feet is eaten.

boiling water from the river to take hear of the pork

It seems that there are about 40 places like this around Hoima. There are discussion to build a real slaughter house together with those joint owners.