Farmers Try New Food-Growing Strategies to Ensure Food Security, Cope with Climate Change

Scientific American

IRINGA, TANZANIA—Farmers need only survey their parched fields during the ever-intensifying dry seasons here to know climate change is happening.

Rain falls less frequently than it did a decade ago because of “destruction of the environment” says Sopian Kinyoge, a 27-year-old farmer. His older sister says rains are more fleeting from “cutting down of the trees.” Alfred Mofuga, 63, simply says, “I cannot know the ways of God.”

Even as the government of Tanzania invests in enhanced food production as a way to fight poverty and raise this country’s standard of living, it faces challenges on many fronts, including resistance from farmers reluctant to change their old ways, and the ongoing difficulty of adapting to a changing—and less predictable—climate.

The country’s official blueprint for reaching its goal of becoming a middle-income economy by 2025 hinges, in fact, on expanding its agricultural production, especially in Tanzania’s relatively fertile southern corridor, where better technologies and methods are expected to improve crop yields exponentially. Other nations have catapulted into the middle-income tier of countries, thanks to agricultural development’s “multiplier effect,” which allows countries to attack hunger and poverty simultaneously, says Tom Hobgood, who heads the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) $77-million Feed the Future program in Tanzania. That’s why USAID and Tanzania’s government are banking on agriculture for the nation’s future. Already agriculture comprises roughly one third of the country’s GDP and employs about three quarters of the population. And working in better climate resilience and nutrition will be essential to reducing poverty and ensuring Tanzania’s future.

Tanzania has ushered in a coterie of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to help support agriculture all along the supply chain. Enterprising firms promising better seeds, fertilizers and outputs are entering into the mix. And the government is also supporting the growth of large farms, too, which they say could employ technology to assist small farmers via local agreements. (Promoting the growth of larger farms, however, may simultaneously set the stage for tensions between them and smaller farms.) “In the past we thought the government could do everything for everyone,” says Tanzania’s Minister of Agriculture, Food Security and Cooperatives, Christopher Chiza. Now, we know, we can only create a conducive environment for employment, he says.

The government is finding, however, that even with outside help the task is daunting. Scaling up successful projects and even collecting evidence demonstrating that that scale-up would be worthwhile is slow-going. Moreover, basic infrastructural flaws can hinder progress; rain often renders roads impassable, and poor storage facilities leave harvested crops vulnerable to rot, vermin or mold.

The work of the company Cheetah Development exemplifies the promise and obstacles of the new efforts in Tanzania. Cheetah’s Solar Dryer Project, which is in its first year of operation and funded with $300,000 from USAID, aims to slice the amount of food lost after harvest each year. The company sells specialized racks that can be used to dry foods, such as tomatoes and onions, which would otherwise rot if unused. Then it buys back the dried goods and sells them in other locations, such as Zanzibar.

The catch is that although they are addressing one serious problem—postharvest losses—the drying rack enterprise may exacerbate another, poor nutrition, because drying can sap some nutritional value from foods. That’s a reasonable price to pay if the choice is dry food or no food. But farmers in the program can fetch a higher price for dried goods, and so some small farmers say they are trying to dry most or all of their crops, adding that they also feed dried food to their children at home.

Although there have been no studies comparing the nutritional content of the rack-dried products versus fresh ones, the Cheetah staff recognizes that nutritional loss is happening. “I’m aware of the nutrition dip, but this is designed to help with storage,” says Tara Menon, who heads up the project. “The idea is to eat fresh produce and dry simultaneously.” But, when asked, farmers did not yet seem aware of any nutritional difference between the two products, a state of affairs that underscores the ongoing challenge of bringing about change and communicating sometimes complex messages. These farmers include Sylvester Mugumba, who owns a farm and acts as a franchisee for the Solar Dryer Project, helping to facilitate its sales in the community for a commission. “[The] nutrition is the same,” he said. “They are the same material but storage is just different.

Another USAID-funded project in the southern highlands of Tanzania is teaching farmers to diversify crops largely because a mixture of foods can improve nutrition. It is helping them incorporate more varied and vitamin-rich vegetables into diets that often consist almost entirely of ugali (a maize-based dish) and beans. Still, a visit to one participant’s home indicated that her toilet had been set up directly adjacent to the garden, risking contamination of the crops. When the garden was planted, she says, the toilet was farther away but she moved it closer to the house because her family was afraid of being bitten by snakes when making their way to the toilet at night. To try to avoid getting sick, she said, the family always cooks the produce before eating it. The health issue there is not a problem with the program itself, but it underscores the continual balancing act farmers must make as the country moves toward its goals.

Clearly, the government faces vast challenges as it pushes to reach its agricultural targets, which is why many companies are trying to carve out small pieces of the puzzle to make their own objectives, trying to do the best they can with limited resources and realizing that behavior change can be difficult. The question now is will that be enough, especially as threats of climate change–stoked weather variance may grow ever greater.

One company trying to ease the transition into a more resilient farming future is One Acre Fund, an NGO in its second year working here. The organization works in multiple locations throughout sub-Saharan Africa, trying to double small farms’ yields within a year via microfinance loan packages that cover seeds, fertilizer and insurance on all of its wares. To enhance resilience to drought, it is trying to convince farmers to buy maize seeds that mature two to three months faster than standard seeds as well as invest in sorghum, millet and sunflower rather than focus almost exclusively on water-hungry maize. Many growers, however, remain hesitant to make the changes. Seeds that take longer to mature reportedly grow larger cobs, which makes them more appealing than the more drought-resistant varieties. Getting farmers to diversify away from traditional maize also poses a challenge. It is not only the 3,000 farmers that have enrolled with One Acre Fund in Iriniga Rural District this year who show reluctance. Throughout the country farmers “keep growing maize, which demands a lot of rain,” Chiza says.

Ten years ago in Iringa rain fell on and off from September through November and then a long rainy season began in December and continued through April. Now the intermittent rains are practically gone, leaving about six months of dry season, says David Hylden, Tanzania Country Director for the One Acre Fund. “Variability is going to become an issue for our program and, more importantly, for our farmers.”

Dina Fine Maron reported this story in Tanzania as a fellow with the International Reporting Project (IRP).

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