Across the country the government, through the Ministry of Food and Agriculture, has implemented a project called Block Farms. Basically each regional and district office was given instructions from above to seek out large tracks of land to develop certain staple crops like maize, rice, soy bean, etc. Districts were given targets (# of hectares) which they must meet, and the plan was for the Ministry to give out the inputs needed (plowing services, seeds, and fertilizer) to farmers on credit. Once they harvested farmers would have to pay back the monetary value of the inputs or a certain amount of their harvest based on the amount of inputs they received.

 

On paper this is a good idea. Many farmers cannot afford the initial capital/start up costs to expand their small scale farms so giving them an interest free loan should help – especially considering how difficult it is to obtain a loan from the bank, and the high interest rates (25-30%) which make it difficult to turn a profit. However, like many development projects I’ve seen, heard of, and read about good ideas, intentions and designs aren’t necessarily implemented properly. In other words, the problem lies in how you do it not what it is you do.

 

I want to share this because it’s been the main priority at the office lately, passed down along the chain and from my perspective it’s difficult to do work outside the realm of Block Farms right now since it’s the district’s main priority. Aside from my perspectives based on the district realities I work within daily, I’m also backing this up with anecdotes, discussions, and opinions/perspectives from Ministry and EWB staff in other districts across this region and the neighbouring Northern region – to make the point that my experience in this district isn’t an isolated case.

 

So what happened? Farmers were given interest free loans and were only asked to pay back a (relatively small) portion of their harvest, thereby leading to more food being produced and hence improved food security. But the main challenges came about through inputs arriving late and dispersed late and I would also argue farmers perception of the government’s role in agriculture.

 

A classic yet tragic development implementation problem happened with the Block Farms: seeds and fertilizer came late. Rain-fed farming is dependent on timing and basically determines a poor or rich yield (among other factors of course). So when fertilizer arrives late and is applied late the crops miss out on essential nutrients at vital stages of their growth leading to stunting and poor yields1. And this is precisely what happened: late fertilizer = poor yields. Why the fertilizer came late I cannot say, I haven’t had much of a window into that aspect of the input supply chain, my guess is it has something to do with planning.

 

Thinking back to my time in Toronto during our pre-departure training we read a case study on a development project. We were given the context and in-depth information about the project design and purpose and were asked to analyze it critically. Since it was a real life practical example our group was surprised at how many problems we accurately predicted before hearing the results of what happened during implementation, however we didn’t foresee a significant problem: inputs arrived late. Let’s take a step back for a moment. Four semi-recent non-development graduates from university in their mid 20’s spent about 2-3 hours analyzing a 3 page case study and predicted the majority of the problems except for late delivery of inputs.

Again, I don’t have the answers as to why inputs came late and I don’t intend to look into it, so it’s likely I’m overlooking some important factors or unexpected challenges. Also, coming from Canada, I cannot remove my perceptions from my own context and background. What I mean here is that coming from a country where it seems like every industry is based on ‘just in time’ practices and worships clock time it’s difficult to understand why the project heads, designers, industry or whoever was responsible couldn’t coordinate the inputs to arrive on time.

 

Now it’s time to recover the bags of produce/ or money owed by farmers – “recovery season” as it’s referred to here at work. This is where all the problems accumulate and cause conflict. One factor that staff talks about is that farmers see the support given by the Ministry as help from the government rather than a legal or official contract (which all farmers who participated signed and therefore agreed to). I interpret this as how farmers perceive the government’s role in agriculture: one based on support and assistance such as technical knowledge, linking to NGO projects, and giving out inputs or other free services. That’s at least a partial reason why farmers aren’t paying back what they were given and why the Ministry is scrambling to recover its costs/loans. A major reason as I’m sure you guessed by now is that because late inputs lead to poor yields and farmers didn’t get enough bags of produce to get by on, let alone pay back to the Ministry. So now field staff forced to collect repayments from farmers. In some cases farmers with poor yields were asked for the only bags of produce they harvested. This can potentially damaging the vital relationship between farmers and Ministry field staff (sometimes seen as a personal attack rather than following orders and doing their job.

 

What’s also frustrating is that districts are spending the majority of their time on this project when they could be helping farmers in other ways. There are talented, smart, hard working people working at my district and districts across the country and if only they were given the freedom to develop their districts based on its needs (aka decentralization), I’m sure there would be some more progress on the ground.

 

 

1I haven’t studied agronomy or crop science; this statement is based on what educated technical field staff have told me

2After last year’s Block Farms there was a joint sector review where essentially all development partners pointed out the flaws of the project and recommended against continuing and scaling it nationally, the Ministry, or rather the politically appointed Minister decided to go ahead with it, demonstrating that Block Farms is a political project

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