ICT4D helps better lives of smallholder tomato farmers in Iringa

10Nov 2016
Mary Mazanza
just back from Iringa
The Guardian
ICT4D helps better lives of smallholder tomato farmers in Iringa

ONE of the basic foods in many communities and societies across the globe, it is either consumed raw to maximise its nutritional usefulness or used as an additive to vegetables to improve taste and colour.

Lutheran World Relief (Tanzania) senior project manager Moses Kabogo (R) inspects tomatoes at a farm belonging to Richard Kaovera.

Processed, it can come in the form of paste, sauce, ketchup, juice, concentrate, puree, chutney and the like.

This is none other than the wonder vegetable commonly known as tomato, Iringa being one of the five regions in Tanzania where it thrives and is most widely grown. In fact, the region has put thousands of hectares of farmland under the crop.

An agency called Association of Iringa Tomato and Vegetable Growers (AITVG) was formed in 2011 under Rural Business Support Programme (RBSP), more popularly known as MUVI and with its head offices based in Iringa Municipality.

AITVG now operates as a limited company and is an apex of 45 tomato and vegetable producers groups supporting a total of 5,000 farmers in 23 villages of Iringa Rural District.

September 2014 saw Lutheran World Relief (LWR) sign a three-year project with AITVG, with a view to introducing ICT-supported agriculture to smallholder farmers.

The specific objective was to help the farmers lead better lives through increased productivity and easier access to markets for the tomatoes and other crops they grew.

This would be made possible in part through the forging of closer links between the farmers and organisations willing to chip in with soft-term credit facilities.

LWR is an international US-based NGO that focuses on sustainable development projects and disaster relief and recovery.

It works to improve the lives of millions of smallholder farmers and people experiencing poverty in Africa, Asia and Latin America both in times of emergencies and in the long term.

The agency uses locally available resources and assets to develop strong and resilient community economies, the ultimate mission being putting an end to poverty, injustice and human suffering by focusing on agriculture, climate and emergency operations.

LWR began its work in Tanzania as long ago as at Independence in 1961, distributing food to people experiencing an acute shortage of food induced by a combination of drought and floods.

It continues to work in the country to date, the emphasis being on the strengthening of farmer organisations and long-term food security mainly in Dodoma, Iringa, Kagera and Morogoro regions.

LWR has worked with a number of farmer groups across Tanzania, chiefly by supporting the production of cash crops like tomatoes, grapes, rice, coffee, beans, potatoes, oil seeds and vegetables for household consumption and sale on the open market.

The agency supports farmer organisations in extending a range of services to their members, including ensuring extension staff such as agricultural experts help farmers with improved planting, cultivation, harvesting and post harvesting techniques.

Farmers can make choice investments, buy inputs in bulk and market their products as a group and therefore get incentives like more reliable markets and better prices.

Information and communication technologies are vital resources in enabling poor farmers to make informed decisions regarding their activities, especially in the rural areas of developing countries.

Indeed, effective public access to ICTs based on farmers’ needs and in the face of farmers’ rural and socio-economic constraints can bridge the knowledge and information divide and enhance agricultural growth.

To get a first-hand account of the influence of the deployment of ICT in promoting tomato production in Iringa, especially in the rural areas, The Guardian recently visited the AITVG offices.

The management and other members of the association shed light on the progress they have recorded in graduating from subsistence to technology-aided production, with chairperson Mtokambali Mrisho dwelling at great length on how they improved in their production through use of technology extended as support by LWR.

“On September 2014 LWR offered us a 400 million/- package through the Tanzania Agricultural Development Bank (TADB). Alongside the package were 23 smartphones, 23 tablets and 23 bicycles,” he said.

He added: “The assistance was meant to fast-track the implementation of a three-year ICT-Platform project involving the use of ICT in agriculture, with a view to improving the livelihoods of smallholder farmers in the rural areas of Iringa District through tomato production.” The project ran under the ‘Nyanya ni Pesa’ (literally, ‘Tomatoes mean Money’) slogan.

Lucas Matanji, a project coordinator with AITVG, meanwhile elaborated on how farmers have benefited by using the ICT-Platform to boost production.

He said the items in the LWR package were distributed to 23 villages, with each village group enterprise agent (GEA) receiving one smartphone, tablets and bicycle. Each GEA use the smartphone to collect the data from the early stage of production the last stage of harvesting as well as marketing.

Updates on market prices are easily transmitted to farmers to make them aware of details on the market, how best to prepare seedbeds, the fertilisers to apply for greatest impact, how to plant and the best seed to use.

All these are well distributed to farmers through GEAs, which help in educating them and making them aware of the advanced agriculture as a way of increasing crop yields per hectare.

“There is a programme specifically focusing on modernisation and diversification of production methods as well as different diseases affecting tomato production,” Matanji told The Guardian.

He added: “Through the use of these tablets pictures can be taken and forwarded to the specific authorities to show the kind of research to conduct on a tomato plant affected by disease. This is done after establishing the nature of the problem, with farmers being advised on the solutions recommended.”

Moses Kabogo, Senior Country Programme Manager at LWR meanwhile said the exemplary diligence, commitment and discipline of AITVG staff had served as an incentive for his agency to enter into an agreement entailing the introduction of the ICT Platform.

He explained that the idea was to see how the technology would help in transforming smallholder farmers into advanced ones able to win a wider and more lucrative market “by producing quality seed the markets would be happy with”.

“Yes, that is precisely why we extended to them 400 million/- through TADB – alongside the 23 tablets, 23 smartphones and 23 bicycles you must have heard about. The whole idea was to promote agriculture through the deployment of ICT,” noted the LWR manager.

Small-holder farmer Richard Kaovera, a member of AITVG, explained at some length how the use of ICT had “lifted me from the misery of a poor tomato producer into the relative luxury of a modern farmer employing improved production techniques.”

He said he has been engaged in agricultural activities since 1990 “but it is only now that I can see a real positive difference in my life, particularly in terms of increased profit.”

He added that, through the use of technology, he dropped the tomato seed variety he previously depended on for a quality seed called Hasira F1.

According to Kaovera, the latter seed is of much greater benefit because the tomatoes take only 75 days to mature and the harvesting can take place even ten times, while for the seed previously used harvesting was possible only for a maximum of six times. The Hasira F1 variety of tomato can survive for up to 20 days and calls for the use of much less fertiliser than most other varieties.

The farmer elaborated: “Half an acre yields up to 600 boxes (cartons) of tomatoes. We used to fetch 21,000/- per box last month against a lowly 12,000/- in September, and it was no miracle ending up with as much as 50m/- in a 1.5-acre farm.” He said this while referring to documents he said had data on his losses and profits.

“I was the overall winner in the district during a competition involving the custody of documents on my farming activities, as confirmed by researchers from the University of Dar es Salaam,” he noted.

Another AITVG member, Joseph Kianjo, concurred: “This ICT intervention in our farming activities has indeed changed us into more productive players in the sector.”

“The technology has sensitised us on how to recognise the best seeds the market demands most as well as the best and safest pesticides to use in order to get the best harvests,” he added.

Smallholder farmer Janeth Kisinge commended the “Nyanya ni Pesa” project, as supported by LWR, saying it was of great benefit because it enables small farmers to acquire bank loans with relative ease.

She said this comes as a result of the project operating complete with a competent manager and an equally competent accountant, adding:

“The presence of these people in our association means a lot because they are helping to create strong working links between us farmers and the banks.

For instance, we are now able to secure credit facilities from the likes of TADB with a small interest of 8 per cent. The loans support our agricultural activities because we are then able to acquire pesticides, fertilisers, better seeds, and the like.”

“Indeed, the use of ICT in agriculture has changed our mindsets and we have come to realise that the association (AITVG) is ours and is not meant for someone else,” said Kisinge, adding: “We are now able to record our data in appropriate books, which helps us to keep the documents in safe custody and fine shape and to see whatever loss or profit we make at the end of the production chain.”

Paul Kianga, also an AITVG member, commented on how he has benefited from the association. He said he has a family of eight children, three of them university students, and he depends solely on agriculture for the family’s basic needs.

“I have now secured loans of 1 million/- from TADB at an 8 per cent interest and will repay 1,080,000/- after six months. The loan is sure to boost my harvests, with profits having doubled,” he said.

Despite the benefits they do get from the association and LWR, the farmers appealed for more support from the government – especially in terms of closer extension services. The specific support includes having specialists to measure the quality of their soil and extend to them subsidised fertilisers so as to promote crop production.

Several farmers also talked of the “urgent need” for a new branch of TADB in Iringa to ease access to bank services as well for a reduction in the price of agricultural tools and other inputs.

The scientific name for tomato is Lycopersicon esculentum Mill, with records showing that it originated in South America and is a member of the Solanaceae family, to which also belong peppers, eggplants, Irish potatoes and tobacco.

It is further shown that the crop originated in the area extending from Ecuador to Chile in the South America’s western coastal plain of South America. The tomato was first domesticated in Mexico, where a variety of sizes and colours were selected.

Experts say tomatoes have significant nutritional value and in recent years, the crop has become known as an important source of lycopene, a powerful antioxidant with anti-cancer properties, alongside providing vitamins and minerals.

They say one medium ripe tomato can provide up to 40 per cent of the recommended daily allowance of Vitamin C and 20 per cent of Vitamin A – in addition to contributing B vitamins, potassium, iron and calcium to the diet.