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07 - 14 March 2007 
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Shock Therapy to Boost Yields

Recently, I was asked to take a TV crew for a filming session on climate change in a remote village of Kenya’s semi arid Eastern Province. A public health officer from a high potential farming region accompanied us.

On seeing the prevalent almost leafless shrubs and cacti, feeling the extreme heat, noticing the water scarcity and considering how the village folk valued each plant that survived the vagaries of weather and pests, the health officer was shocked.

“I have a whole half acre of land which is lying idle and a big compound that is just filled with grass,” he begun. “What would these people do if they found themselves in my region? Certainly, they would make use of the land for food security and profit,” he answered himself. The officer resolved to immediately embark on tilling his land and shrinking the size of his compound by using it for farming.   

The quest for productivity and increase is inherent in every human being. As a result, they are willing to embrace technologies that will make them food sufficient. 

If Africa has to make digit strides and be food secure, it will call for farmers receiving a “shock therapy.” One such therapy is taking them to see what farmers in other regions are doing. A common saying in my village states that “a child who does not travel always thinks that its mother is the best cook.”  

“Ethiopia,” for example, “is the second largest producer of maize in Africa,” laments Economist Ms Eleni Gabre-Madhin, “yet Ethiopian farmers are getting poorer and poorer.” Why? Few farmers travel more than 12 miles from their homes in their lifetime – hence they have very little information about the worth of their food.

“The farmer doesn’t know the price. He might get five cents here, but on the other side of the country where there is drought, he might get three times the price,” Gabre-Madhin says.  

In addition, many farmers don’t treat their farming as a business venture that puts into account profit and losses. That is why when  officers from Syngenta demonstrated to farmers in a Kenyan village how certified seeds that the farmers considered ‘expensive’ were in the long run ‘cheap and profitable,’ than their farm saved seeds, even after factoring in fertilizer and pesticides, farmers were shocked. They unanimously adopted the use of certified seeds.

Speaking at a graduation ceremony in Uganda recently, Prof. Gilbert Bukenya, Vice president of Uganda castigated Ugandan farmers for using back- breaking hoes and other traditional methods of farming.  

“Over 90 per cent are using hand hoes, ox-ploughs and hands to till gardens. This cannot be entertained any longer. These are very simple tools of production which plough little land in a very long time,” he said.

How shall they exit this if they have never seen an alternative? The failure to Africa’s agriculture can be attributed to the treatment of information. Vincent Nnamdi Ozowa of Nigeria notes that “as often happens, agricultural information is not integrated with other development programs to address the numerous related problems that face farmers. The information provided is exclusively focused on policy makers and researchers, with scant attention being paid to the information needs of the targeted beneficiaries.” 

There is urgent need for linkages between farmers, researchers, the academia, policy makers and consumers. Farmers ought to be part and parcel of farming control experiments. Placing farms that use herbicides and pesticides side by side with those that don’t will open farmers’ eyes as they see the outcome. One demonstration is worth a thousand illustrations.  

The climate has never ceased to change but each time, human beings have been innovative enough to adapt to the change. As Prof.  Bukenya rightly observes, it is urgent that we nurture a culture of science and research. This cannot happen when  policy makers advance policies that lead to more reliance on government to solve problems that individuals should solve on their own. African governments must allow their citizens to innovate and explore new frontiers of knowledge. The farming community on the other hand must be fully informed about farm products and participate in their development.

By Josephat Juma
Mr. Juma is an African Executive Writer

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