Eds: Joel Matthews wrote to us in response to the article in EDN 121 about farmers and risk aversion. He shared, “Dick Tinsley highlighted an important cause of the failure of poor peasant farmers to adopt a labor intensive technology, and I believe he is correct in his assessment. I have been working on the same problem from the other end of the labor spectrum. My research has shown that many peasant farmers choose not to participate in labor saving techniques as well, but this phenomenon demands another explanation.” The article below explains Joel’s findings, based on his past development work (along with Tony Rinaudo) at the Maradi Integrated Development Project, and his current PhD research among the Hausa of Niger
Case study of a technique rejected by farmers
There is no doubt in my mind that West African farmers want development if that means, among other things, more productive farming. Of course they would rather harvest seven than three sacks of sorghum per hectare. If that is so, why do so many choose not to engage in development projects that are designed to increase productivity? Dick Tinsley offered an explanation in his article “Rethinking a Basic Assumption in Agricultural Development,” in EDN 121. His argument makes sense when the innovations require more labor than what farmers are already doing, because many subsistence farmers have run out of food by planting time and are short of the calories needed to implement labor-intensive innovations. But what explains the decision not to participate in an innovation that promises higher productivity but requires less labor than what farmers are already doing?
I lived on a ten-acre experimental farm situated just outside of a village in Niger, West Africa, where I worked with a small team of Hausa farmers testing solutions to common problems of low productivity. All of our innovations needed to have very low or no cost, and were based on what farmers were already doing, such as grafted Ziziphus, locally constructed bee hives, and live fencing. I have no doubt that many of these techniques, along with others developed by my colleagues at the Maradi Integrated Development Program (MIDP), were technically successful and culturally appropriate. Yet few farmers ever adopted the techniques. The one exception is the widespread adoption of natural regeneration (especially in non-project villages), as described by Tony Rinaudo in recent EDN issues.
Let me offer one example of an innovation that was rejected: the live fence. This is an important innovation because it solves several serious environmental and productivity problems with very little effort and no cost. Hausa farmers in the region have always battled to keep unwanted ‘visitors’ out of their dry-season gardens. These visitors range from stray cows to thieves in the night. The traditional solution is to cut branches from nearby thorn trees and bury these branches in shallow, closely-spaced holes on the garden boundary. Dry-season gardens are then planted in the low-lying heavy clay once the flood water has receded and the heavy soil is workable.
A fence made of thorn branches is mediocre at best; not an effective barrier for thieves who can simply push the branches over with a large stick. These temporary fences, constantly needing renewal due to termite damage, are ineffective, cause deforestation, and offer very little return for investment. Furthermore, due to the ineffectiveness of this barrier, farmers must spend cold nights in their gardens, or hire guards (an expense they can ill afford) to intercept thieves. One solution my team worked on for several years is live fencing. A live fence replaces dead thorn branches with living ones, is permanent, and provides additional benefits such as wood production and animal fodder.
In order to move from dead to live thorn fences, the traditional practice of building fences from cut branches has to be modified. First, thorn seedlings must be obtained before they can be planted. Since many farmers will not spend disposable income for thorn seedlings, they must plant their own. Seeds can be collected from local thorn trees and scattered in an upland sandy plot. This step requires very little time or effort and should be done in the rainy season, several months before the seedlings will be needed for transplanting, to eliminate the need for watering. Seedlings of thorn trees then must be transplanted along the boundary of the garden, about a month before the lowland clay is workable for garden planting, and when it is still moist enough to allow the seedlings to establish without any watering or care. This way no watering is ever required from start to finish.
We experimented with several varieties of local thorn trees and shrubs, and we found several combinations that provided an impenetrable fence within two or three years. The first three years some dead thorn branches must be placed along the fence line until the live fence is mature, but by the end of the third year a permanent and impenetrable fence has been established. Additionally, after the third year the fence can be harvested for animal fodder (always in short supply), edible fruit, nuts and leaves, firewood, thorns for sale (to others that continue with the dead thorn fence technique), and wood poles for construction or for sale. In terms of return for inputs, the process is not energy or time-intensive, does not require any cash outlay, and by the third year only requires wood harvesting to keep the fence trim and dense. Choosing the correct thorn species and keeping the fence trimmed minimizes competition between the fence row and nearby crops, and the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages, both in terms of usable products from the fence, and of savings that result from no theft or animal damage.
Once our fence was functioning well and we were sure that we had chosen some of the best species, we were ready to promote the innovation to local farmers. Of course the local farmers already knew about the live fence. They saw it established over the several years that we experimented with it; indeed they walked past it every day. Furthermore, as I sat and talked with local farmers, conversation would often drift into a discussion of some of our innovations, including the fence. Farmers often commented that no thief could get though our fence, but they never asked for our help in establishing one for themselves. This seemed odd, knowing that their fences were time consuming and ineffective, but necessary. It was also quite a disappointment as I watched the men deforest the area chopping thorn trees to build ephemeral rickety fences year after year.
At this point someone may offer familiar advice: “You should never try to promote innovations unless they are asked for.” That is a good general principle, but not always practical. Sometimes village mothers need to be taught about infant nutrition and disease even before they ask. And the natural regeneration that is so successful in our area was developed without asking the farmers whether they needed to restore trees on their farms—but is widely practiced by many of those same farmers today.
Why did the farmers decide not to adopt the thorn fence? At this point the perceptive reader will protest that he/she does not know enough yet about the context. Did I harbor secret racism? Was I incorrigible? Did the Hausa neighbors secretly despise me? Were we using a tree reserved only for sacred purposes? These issues can never be completely eliminated as possible factors, but the team that I worked with was made of local Hausa farmers, and they thought that people would adopt the fence idea. And if perfect harmony was required between adopters and possessors of new technologies, no innovations would have ever been adopted by Africans. But clearly this is not the case. When the issues already discussed above have been eliminated as factors, my research (which is still ongoing) suggests other reasons. One factor in particular, that stands out among many that are emerging, is irresponsible giving.
Irresponsible giving is closely related to a phenomenon that is very familiar to development thinkers and practitioners alike: aid dependency. In fact, I believe that one of the major factors that inhibit peasant farmers from adopting important innovations is dependency fostered by irresponsible giving. How and why does this happen? A dependency syndrome is created when people realize that they don’t need to solve their problems because wealthy foreigners regularly come to their village to offer gifts. These gifts can come from development facilitators, missionaries, or tourists. Of course giving itself is an important Christian principle, but uninformed and excessive giving does more harm than good. In fact, visiting Americans are probably the worst culprits, especially visitors from American churches that come armed with money to help the poor. Part of the problem is that giving makes the giver feel good, and the glowing report returned to the donor churches only increases the tendency to give irresponsibly. Finally, the giver does not realize that the gift will foster dependency, or that dependency is very destructive to constructive and sustainable problem solving.
What is the solution? Continue to give to the destitute, such as widows and orphans, but even then give in a way that does not foster dependency (this is not easy). In the development context, restrict giving to the giving of your time. Spend a lot of time with people: eat with them, buy their mangoes, attend their weddings, and visit them when they are sick. And advise the visiting Americans how and when to give. Do not let them give with indiscretion.
Further Reading Suggestions (by Editors)
When Helping Hurts by Corbett and Fikkert
When Charity Destroys Dignity by Glenn Schwartz
Western Christians in Global Mission by Paul Borthwick
African Friends and Money Matters by David Maranz