The Challenge of Feeding Ourselves Part 2: The Mwea Irrigation Ecosystem as a Small Scale Agriculture Model
We are always talking about the problems. This week, let’s change gears and focus on solutions - how to rethink commercial small-scale agriculture.
Last week’s article is a prerequisite reading as this article flows directly from it. So make sure to read it first, here.
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Good, let’s continue.
Dedicated Farming Zones (DFZs)
One of the ideas I flirt around with as a solution to the challenges of small-holder agriculture is cooperatives, Farmers can pool together capital and share resources such as irrigation infrastructure, markets, knowledge etc. And we have seen this work – dairy cooperatives are one of the more successful small-scale agribusiness set-ups in East Africa for obvious reasons. But let’s extend the cooperatives idea further, and we are met with dedicated farming zones (DFZs).
I define a dedicated farming zone as just that - an area dedicated to agriculture. The land holding can vary from small to large scale owned either privately or communally. It is not subject to subdivision for settlements as it is purposely agricultural land. The dedicated farming zone may have built-in irrigation systems, machinery for hire, established labour sources and marketing routes. And one of the best examples I have seen -The Mwea Rice irrigation ecosystem.
The Mwea Rice Irrigation Ecosystem
In this article, I will not cover the history or the current set-up of the irrigation scheme which you can read here and elsewhere. So let’s dive into why this model works.
NB 1: In this article, I deliberately use the word “ecosystem” not “irrigation scheme “as it is typically known to broaden the lens of the discussion from the historic irrigation scheme to the direct and indirect consequences on the rest of the Mwea region.
NB 2: Yes, I have cherry-picked the best of the principles that make the Mwea irrigation ecosystem work. But like any system, it has its challenges and problems, which I do not cover here.
1. Land consolidation, tenure and ownership
The genius of the irrigation ecosystem is how the agricultural land is separated from residential land. You live wherever you want, but the farming land is for farming only, protecting it from unnecessary subdivision for sale or inheritance.
The farmland itself has inherent agricultural value. For the most part, it makes economic sense to cultivate it and not set up real estate as is typical with other regions in the country. It also helps that plenty of the farmland has a high water table used to make up the rice fields– constructing/living on this land would be impractical.
As a potential farmer, you can choose to lease. And if you are a land owner, you can rent out part or the whole of the land. Land becomes a valuable resource for crop production with fixed value such that whatever you put into it in investment values, the returns at the end of the year are fairly predictable.
Rice is grown in two seasons (can be more). The first season repays the farmers’ crop production expenses (seedlings, inputs, mechanization). After the first harvest, rice is left to regenerate to yield a second harvest. A common saying in the area is that the second harvest is the farmers’ profits (after covering expenses in the first harvest).
This predictability in input and output makes farming attractive as an investment. You know how much to put in, and the returns at the end of the year, with a certain degree of certainty. Compare this to rain-fed agriculture where low-yielding seeds and unpredictable rains expose the investment to external risks.
Farmers are not charity workers – they will farm if it makes financial sense on their part. With the risks and unpredictability of rain-fed agriculture, it is no wonder farmers are increasingly shying away – the losses accruing every year are too much.
2. Shared farm machinery
When we talk of mechanization as a challenge for small-scale agriculture, it is from the angle of affordability. But where demand is high, investors may take up the risk of buying to earn money from hiring them out. This is the case for the Mwea ecosystem, which depends on machinery for land preparation, harvesting and packing the rice straws into bales for hay.
Due to the risks of manual harvesting in rice paddies, it is much more economical to hire harvesters than pay for human labour. This means machines are available to every farmer, keeping costs low. The same goes for packing bales– a machine will pack rice straws for every single farmer in the ecosystem. There is work all through the year with short down times. Low costs also translate to low production costs overall and assure better profits for the farmer. It is a win-win situation.
3. The right amount and mix of government intervention
Small-scale farmers require a certain level of government support. It can be in the form of the provision of credit facilities, better seeds/seedlings, extension officers etc. However, it has to be the right amount and mix so that farmers are still able to decide when, where and how to farm.
In the Mwea ecosystem, farmers get seedlings from the National Irrigation Board (NIB). A farmer can prepare their own seedlings but is a time-consuming process. It is easier to get high-yielding and improved seedlings from the board.
Besides seedlings, NIB also oversees the use and management of water in the irrigation canals (these are separate from the farms that use surface/groundwater due to high water tables). The water committee as is locally known ensures fairness in the use of irrigation water, maintains the canals and expands or changes course if need be.
NIB also plugs in to offer storage for the produce (at a fee) and a factory to mill the rice. This is an alternative for those that do not want to use a private store or mill.
The right mix and amount of government intervention are important. In the past, NIB would get involved in the production capacities of the farmers. Chaos ensued particularly during harvest seasons. The rice the farmers harvested belonged to NIB.
Farmers had to wait for NIB to pay them minus the cost of seedlings and inputs. However, the “liberalization” of this ecosystem allowed farmers more control over their farm produce and cultivated the growth o of new parties within the ecosystem – such as the financier middlemen. I wonder if this same method could help tea and coffee farmers earn more from their produce.
4. The Financier Middleman/Broker
During my research, I was pretty surprised to learn about the financier middleman within the rice production ecosystem. Typically, we have grown to love and hate the middleman. They exploit farmers, yes, but they also address an important gap –market and logistics. The Mwea ecosystem middleman, a role filled mostly by women, goes a step further – provides soft loans to farmers.
The broker buys rice from the farmers, mills and stores it and sells it to wholesalers and other retailers (the truckers arriving in droves) and directly to consumers in smaller amounts. When a farmer wants to cultivate rice but lacks the money, they approach a broker who provides a soft loan. The broker dictates the conditions including the return period and fixes the price of the rice they will buy from the farmer after harvest. Your work as a farmer now becomes to grow enough to pay the loan and still have some left for your own needs.
Some brokers obtain funds from a financial bank. In this way, banks indirectly extend credit to farmers through these traders. And this is very interesting because one of the many challenges of small-scale farming is access to loans. What can you do at the farm if you lack the initial capital? Not much. Farming is an investment venture with capital needs, operation and production expenses and risks. Every venture needs financiers. And the Mwea ecosystem has self-corrected to build up its own financiers.
At this point, I cannot speak to how well the system works, how conflict is resolved and instances when defaults happen. But it is an interesting idea for future research.
5. Social proof for the cultivation of other crops
The rice fields are the main crop production activity in the Mwea region. However, farmers have taken up other crops in privately owned land parcels. Crops such as bananas, sweet potatoes, maize and beans are common.
The farmers took the lessons from the rice farming ecosystem and incorporated them into the cultivation of other crops. Canals are dug from the main water channels to bring water into the farm. From here the farmer might use hose pipes or furrows to take the water into the individual plots.
Water conservation and other good agricultural techniques are applied. For example, it is common to see bananas in modified Zai pits, beans in highly mulched furrows and large plantations of maize growing in soils rich in organic matter. All under irrigation. What might have started as an irrigation scheme for rice, has also impacted how farmers produce other types of crops.
6. Beyond the farm ecosystem
Beyond the rice, the ecosystem offers other benefits including:
Employment: The rice ecosystem provides employment opportunities at every stage of rice farming, inputs use, processing (milling) and sale and distribution. During the research period, my boda boda guy and I often joked how “you cannot sleep hungry here” because there is always some form of work available.
Factories: The factories mill the rice and may be involved in the storage of the farm produce as it awaits sale. The farmers have allocated space for storage which they pay for. As I bought my rice at the National Irrigation Board depot, I noticed additional support in terms of weighing scales and packaging options. The factories also provide employment to dozens of people
Waste Use: After the rice is harvested the rice straws are packaged into bales to be sold as hay for mulching, fodder or animal bedding. The husks from the milling process are used as ingredients in the animal feed manufacturing process. Both provide additional income for the farmer and even more employment opportunities
Industrialization. Notice how new industries have formed around this ecosystem. When we talk about industrialization in Africa, do we imagine it from the perspective of creating completely new factories to supply consumer goods or new factors to process agricultural produce?
Think about it.
What can we learn from the Mwea Irrigation Ecosystem?
Based on the factors above, I am of the opinion that this is the way to do small-scale agriculture in Kenya, if not in Africa. Combining land parcels prevents fragmentation and subdivision so that agricultural land remains so.
Land parcels can be “donated” from individual farmers so that each dedicates a portion of their land (bordering with other farmers) to increase the acreage under production. This land is protected from unproductive fragmentation by its inherent agricultural value. And this is incredibly important as we move into a future of increased urbanization and explosive population growth.
Besides contributing small parcels to make up a large parcel of land, dedicated farming zones can be made in arid and semi-arid areas. These are areas with low population densities.
By forming a farming zone, the farmers can pool together their resources to invest in irrigation infrastructure and mechanization. Irrigation infrastructure such as boreholes, canals, furrows or drips can easily be shared among farms, along with the costs of set up.
As a collective, their access to markets and transportation options is also better. And if they would like to own the tail end of the supply chain by selling to consumers, then there is room for this as well.
Farmers’ co-learning from each other solves the problems of farmer education and creates the social proof required for replication by other farmers. And this is why farm models work.
Farm models demonstrate best practices for cultivating a certain crop or crop mix on a piece of land belonging to a farmer involved in that activity. For example, maize farmers in a given area can donate one parcel where the model is set up and all the farmers in the region can learn how to do it.
As my friend and Twitter user Nicholas Aburi says, it is not useful to lump agricultural inventions and best practices into the annual Agricultural Society of Kenya exhibitions/shows – create farm models within walking distance where farmers can learn from each other.
But what if you are a subsistence farmer growing food for just your household without commercial interests? Or what if your interest is in the range of crops not the quantity of produce? Then you need to build complexity into your food production system. Let’s talk more about it in Part 3 (and the final part) of the series The Challenge of Feeding Ourselves coming up next.
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