Monday, April 28, 2014

Notes from the Field - Seeds and Voucher Fairs

Right before the Shire River meets the mighty Zambezi, in the Southern tip of Malawi, lay two of the poorest district in the country. This beautiful valley, dotted with baobab and sugar cane plantations, has very erratic weather, ranging from dry spells and droughts to flash floods.

Traditionally, development agencies have used seed distribution to help farmers mitigate the impact of these climatic shocks. Using the ‘Seeds and Tools’ methodology, farmers were given seeds based on what the development agency considered most appropriate. Unfortunately, this approach was based on a flawed assumption – that farmers are passive recipients of seed, instead of dynamic agents relying on a combination of formal and farmer networks to acquire seeds.

‘Seeds and Tool’ approach was therefore plagued with many problems: farmers often consumed (instead of plant) the distributed seeds, or tried to sell them in other markets. More troubling, given that these seeds may not have been adapted to the particular ecological conditions of a community, crops failed completely, leaving farmers worse off.

A much better alternative is the Seed and Voucher Fairs (SVFs). The principle of giving vulnerable farmers seed to help them cope with the losses from climatic shocks remains the same. SVFs, however, are fundamentally different in that they empower farmers by giving them a choice. Instead of distributing seeds from the formal sector, SVFs provide farmers with vouchers. Each voucher has a monetary value that farmers use to redeem seeds from local and regional suppliers. And it’s the availability of these local seed suppliers what makes the fairs successful, as they act as marketplaces where farmers can chose the bundle of seeds that best fit their preferences (soil, area, taste, market etc.).

The pictures in this post are from a recent SVFs conducted in the Chikwawa district. Farmers in some areas of the district had lost part of their crop to heavy rain and flash floods. Using the SVFs, we distributed seeds for the winter season which starts in April and ends in June/July.  A successful winter season would help farmers compensate for some of the losses from the last harvest.

Farmers rely on residual moisture and irrigation to grow crops during the winter season. The cold climate of April-June reduces evaporation rates, providing enough moisture for plants to develop. There are two important elements for a good winter harvest: first, farmers need to ensure the soil has enough mulch and organic material to retain water in the soil. Conservation agriculture provides a good toolkit on how to do this, using maize stover and other crop residues. Second, because the winter season is shorter, farmer need short-maturity seeds that reduce the need for irrigation when it starts to get hot and residual moisture is used up.  

During the fair, we brought local vendors of sweet potatoes, maize, groundnuts, beans, cowpeas, fruit trees, and vegetables (Mpiru – Mustard, Bonongwe – Amaranth, and Kamganje – Rape). Each farmer received vouchers to exchange for 10kb bundles of Orange-Flesh Sweet Potatoes, 5kg of Maize, beans, and cowpeas, 2 mango trees, and small package of vegetable seeds.

While SVFs are a much better alternative than ‘Seeds and Tool’, this approach is logistically more complicated. Establishing the right price for the vouchers, identifying the venues, mobilizing the community, and working with vendors are all things that require a lot of planning with multiple stakeholders. Last minute problems are bound to happen. During one of the fairs, one vendor ran out of sweet potato vines and another one didn't show up. In another fair, the extension agents told farmers to show up at a different time for the fair. We also had problem with farmers standing in line for way too long. In any case, these are minor issues that can be adequately addressed – we told farmers to pick up the maize and sweet potato at another nearby fair and we streamlined the process to redeem the coupons in the subsequent fairs.

Farmers in this part of Malawi continue to grow at subsistence and sub-subsistence  levels. They have few incentives to increase productivity as market links are weak and farm investment too expensive for farmers to afford. And while SVFs do little to address these underlying problems, the fairs help farmers ensure they can at least cope with the immediate damage caused by harsh weather. Having enough food to feed their family is the first step in supporting farmers as they transition from subsistence to commercial agriculture production. 

Useful resources: