High risks in African farming
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CTA. 1991. High risks in African farming. Spore 35. CTA, Wageningen, The Netherlands.
Permanent link to this item: http://hdl.handle.net/10568/45590
Farming in Africa is a gamble, and African subsistence farmers have to do everything in their power to cut down the risks and ensure that their families are fed and provided for. This may explain why they are so cautious about adopting new ideas and...
Farming in Africa is a gamble, and African subsistence farmers have to do everything in their power to cut down the risks and ensure that their families are fed and provided for. This may explain why they are so cautious about adopting new ideas and systems. The need to ensure security is often the prime factor governing a farmer's decisions, a fact which is often ignored. The main concern of developers and scientists is to produce more, but what the farmers seek, above all, is to live better by reducing the risk factors. His philosophy can be summed up as 'don't put all your eggs in one basket.' To eat when he is hungry is the primary and legitimate concern of the farmer. The risks of poor harvests are great, especially in the Sahel where 'normal' years, when there is sufficient rainfall over a wide enough area, are the exception occurring perhaps one year in three. In order to increase the chances of obtaining a crop in conditions such as these, the risks must be spread geographically and seasonally as much as possible. The subsistence farmer will therefore plant on a wide variety of soils with different characteristics. Along the rivers he will stake his livelihood on rainfed agriculture, which yields well if there is enough rainfall and he will rely, during times of drought, on crops grown on the floodplains. Risks increase with modernization Because the duration of the rainy season is difficult to gauge, the farmer will sow several times in succession. In theory early sowing has less chance of success, but if the rains finish early it can be quite profitable. In humid regions where cereals do not grow well and post-harvest deterioration is rapid, staggered sowing and mixed cropping ensure that there will always be something to harvest. Farmers will also grow tubers which can be dug out as and when needed. These are usually the only stocks of food. To an agronomist, intensification means monocultures in neat rows with improved varieties but farmers often consider that the vagaries of climate justify the tactics and the mixtures described above. The farming practices and social structures of rural peoples have been developed in order to guarantee their own subsistence, but these days governments also require farmers to ensure food self-sufficiency at national level. They are expected to produce foodstuffs for the towns and for export. 'Modern' agricultural systems are considered 'safe and productive' as opposed to the 'high risk' traditional practices. In effect, the risks may be different, but they remain and may even be greater. Irrigated farming is supposed to eliminate the risk of water shortage and to guarantee production, but in practice this does not always work. Despite the farmer's efforts and the high costs, all too often pumps break down, fertilizers are delivered late or not at all, not to mention problems in selling the produce. These are new risks against which the farmer cannot take precautions because they are beyond his control. To him the only possible insurance is to diversify as much as possible. If he wants more financial security the farmer leaves the countryside and goes to the town. Draft power and mechanization can increase the area of land cultivated, but the more land is cultivated the more risks there are and the threat from the weather remains. There may not be sufficient labour for the manual work, and the financial risk increases because of the high cost of equipment and inputs. The threat of famine has been replaced by that of bankruptcy. Famine or bankruptcy? For cash crop plantations the risk is judged in relation to what has been invested in the operation. In Cote d'lvoire, for example, coffee and cocoa were traditionally considered the least risky crops: with basic tools and minimal effort there would always be a crop with a guaranteed price. Such crops are much safer even if they fetch six to ten times less per hectare than bananas which require a lot of attention, and whose price fluctuates wildly during the course of the year. But the crash of the coffee and cocoa markets has called these traditional attitudes into question and created yet another risk. This will no doubt change the attitude of the producers. Farmers may have managed to adapt their practice to the climatic risks which they know well, but new risks created by world economic changes and the changes in the natural environment are harder to come to terms with. Diversification remains the best guarantee of security.
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