The fact that agriculture is the mainstay of our economy was realized and categorically stated right from the early days of our political independence, and a verbal commitment to improve the sector was vocally made.
Since then we have had several programmes and campaigns aimed at improving the life sustaining sector. At one time the slogan of “politics is agriculture” became a national motto. However, achieved results have not been all that impressive, tempting observers to raise the question of what has gone wrong.
By the way, this problem is not unique to Tanzania, but prevails in most African countries, much as there are isolated success stories here and there. It is for this reason that initiatives like the Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) have been put in place.
The alliance strives to improve agricultural production in the continent by, among other strategies, unlocking the potential of the smallholder farmer, or peasant.
The definition of the smallholder farmer is a bit tricky, but policy makers tend to agree that it refers to those cultivating less than 50 hectares of land, or keeping less than 50 head of local breed cattle. Sometimes there is a tendency of growing multiple crops and running farms using family manpower.
This calls our attention to the recent Alliance for Green Revolution Forum (AGRF), held in Arusha for three days, and issues raised at this important meeting which attracted about 1200 delegates from the continent and other parts of the World.
The central theme this time around was on how to promote sustainable agricultural growth and ensure food security in Africa. Emphasis was on how to empower smallholder farmers, as a prerequisite for achieving the above –mentioned cherished goals, and also alleviate poverty.
Why is the role of a smallholder vital in transforming Africa’s agricultural landscape? It is noted that peasants constitute a majority in most African countries.
Hence, meaningful development can only be attained if we have them on board. Second, this category of farmers feed us, much as their production per hectare is miserably low. Latest available data show that about 80 per cent of the food consumed in Africa is produced by smallholders.
Third, is the realization that poverty alleviation interventions can only be effective if the concerns of this group are seriously addressed? The fact that peasants are the most marginalized section of the society is well known, as is the consensus that the situation can be changed by helping them to help themselves.
Another aspect which has preoccupied those concerned about Africa’s rural transformation for years and was also raised at the forum is why agricultural productivity in the continent remains low, and the food crisis persists. Failure by peasants to embrace appropriate technological innovations, as reflected by inadequate use of improved agricultural tools, high crop yielding seeds and fertilizers, was pinpointed as one of the setbacks.
The traditional back-breaking hoe, for example, remains the main dependable agricultural tool of peasants in rural areas. This explains why about 239 people in Africa are victims of food insecurity.
Dependence on rain-fed agriculture, instead of supplementing it with irrigation activities, is another unnecessary setback. This scenario exists even in the south of the Sahara zone, despite the fact water sources with a potential of supporting effective irrigation activities are available. In many cases even the opportunity of tapping underground water for agricultural activities is rarely exploited.
Yet another setback discussed is the question of inadequate financing of smallholder farmers. The guest of honor at the opening of Green Revolution Forum, Tanzania’s President Jakaya Kikwete, admitted in his speech that most African countries have no reliable financial mechanism to ensure these farmers get adequate credit to enable them secure the much needed agriculture rural inputs and tools.
This problem is compounded by the attitude of private banks, which consider small scale farmers “un bankable”, on the grounds that line of lending is highly risky. Micro-finance institutions, which dare to venture in the area where banking Angels fear to tread, are few in the continent.
All said, it is worth noting that problems affecting the smallholder, which were enumerated and deliberated on at the green revolution forum are not new.
They have, in fact, been reasonably well researched on and African governments have enough policy documents on improving the sector. The plight of African peasants lies in poor implementation of conceived solutions to agricultural backwardness. It seems a serious agricultural revolution in Africa is yet to take off.
Henry Muhanika is a media consultant. firstname.lastname@example.org