The Production Conundrum

The Production Conundrum

As Zambia’s experience shows, solving hunger is not just about growing more food.


Samuel Fromartz’s Zambia research was generously supported by Worldwatch’s Nourishing the Planet.

When people discuss the food crises in Africa, the focus is usually on production: “Grow more and the food problem will be solved!” But this argument grossly oversimplifies the forces that lead to global food shortages—and the solutions that could ultimately put food back on the table.

Take Zambia, some 2,500 miles south of where a famine is ravaging East Africa. A country the size of France, Zambia has managed to grow more food than it needs, lifting production 48 percent in 2010 to its highest level in two decades. Aided by rains and generous government fertilizer subsidies, Zambia achieved this feat while maintaining a ban on the genetically modified crops that the “grow more” camp often advocates as the foremost solution to hunger.

Yet this hasn’t proven to be the windfall for Zambians that one would expect. Nearly one in five households is chronically short of food; more than half of all rural children suffer from stunting, a symptom of malnutrition. In short, surplus production has not provided food for those who need it most.

The same problem exists on a global scale. We produce more than enough food to feed the world’s population, yet nearly a billion people are going hungry. One oft-cited study found that of the 4,600 kilocalories of food produced for each person globally, only 2,000 were consumed. Food waste alone, in the vast chain from field to plate, consumes almost 40 percent of what is produced. Yet technocrats and agribusiness promoters point to new seeds and herbicides as necessary to bolster production, while ignoring how much is often lost after a harvest.

The “grow more” mantra has led the way since the outset of the Green Revolution in the 1960s, which sought to address global hunger. Aside from boosting production, it helped create vital new markets for agro-industrial firms, which sell the seeds, fertilizers and pesticides that underlie crop intensification. But it has also come with environmental and social costs, whether measured as massive water use, oceanic “dead zones” from nitrogenous pollution, pesticide poisonings or farmer indebtedness. Seed breeding and technology should be viewed as one set of tools, along with considerations like prices, support networks, trading arrangements, transportation and food waste. A laserlike focus on increasing production fails to take into account the larger agricultural context: where and how farmers get seed and fertilizers and how much they pay; whether farmers know the best growing method; whether there are viable markets in which to sell the crop; whether prices are fair and transparent; and whether farmers make enough money to eat, send their kids to school and, perhaps, lift themselves out of poverty. Addressing those issues—and not food production alone—brings food to hungry people.

* * *

Looking out the window during the final leg of the flight to Zambia—a trip that takes roughly twenty hours from the United States—the country appears lush, endowed with rivers, forests and farmland. But the view from the air can be deceptive.

During the early part of the harvest in 2010, speculation was mounting about a crash in corn prices, especially during the dry months from June to August. “A tidal wave of maize will be hitting the market,” Rob Munro, a senior market development adviser for USAID, told me in Lusaka, Zambia’s capital city. The government was fretting about what to do with all this food. Zambia already had a 600,000-ton surplus from the 2009 harvest, a portion of which was still sitting in warehouses. The surplus for 2010 was projected to be 1.1 million tons. Since the government doesn’t have enough money to mop up all the excess, the grain that isn’t purchased is subject to rock-bottom market prices. The result: the farmers growing this food can end up penniless and hungry.

I saw this up close, in the grain-growing region of Mkushi, where the end-of-harvest sales were in full swing. People walked along dirt roads, carrying grain to selling points. A few had strapped fifty-kilogram (110 pounds) sacks of corn to bicycles. Others balanced them on their heads. Children who looked as young as 5 joined as well, though their bags were smaller. No one had a car or truck to transport their harvest.

At the drop-off points, the sacks would be piled high. Trucks would come to haul the crop away and the farmers would go home with whatever they could get from grain dealers, usually about 20,000–25,000 kwacha ($4 to $5) a bag. Often the price was cut because the crops appeared to be of inferior quality—too many broken kernels, dirty corn, etc. There was no posted market price. You took what you got.

The economics work like this: if a farmer grows one hectare (2.5 acres) of corn and yields the average of about 1.7 tons, he ends up with about thirty-four bags of corn. That will earn around $170 before expenses for fertilizer, seed and the bags. But that is only if the entire crop is sold, which it isn’t, since a portion is held back for food and seed. Two hectares of corn is about the outer limit of what a farmer working alone with a hoe can produce, which means a meager income of less than $1 a day.

The end of the harvest marks the beginning of a perilous time for these farmers, since they slowly consume the portion of the crop they’ve saved, or spend the money they’ve made for food. (Among small farmers, 35 percent are net buyers of food during the year.) By December, just before planting season, food stocks and money typically run low. “The farmers run out of food and then they have to work hard in the fields, with very little to eat,” Mabvuto Chisi, a business adviser for USAID, told me. “December to March are the hardest months, because they are working and waiting for the harvest in April.” This is especially tough for women in single-parent households, which make up roughly one in five agricultural households in Zambia.

But in Zambia’s corn belt, where people have at least been getting by, the question for farmers has become, How can I improve my lot rather than living hand-to-mouth? The answer given by development experts for decades has been to raise yield: farmers can then reap more out of those two hectares of land and earn more money. But this isn’t a simple fix: as has already happened in Zambia, massive production can send prices tumbling. The smallest farmers, who are the least productive, suffer doubly, by producing little and getting paid a pittance for the crop.

Meanwhile, higher yields have benefited the much larger “commercial” farms that stretch into the distance alongside the dirt roads, and that look no different from sprawling cornfields in Iowa. These efficient, high-yielding farms—many of which belong to farmers from Zimbabwe whose own lands were appropriated by the Mugabe government—don’t depend on the vagaries of the rainy season because they have huge pipes to irrigate their fields. Along with a class of “emerging” entrepreneurial midsize Zambian farmers, they make up only 4 percent of the farming population; yet they account for about half the crop in Zambia, and they benefit the most from new crop technologies. The remaining 96 percent, who account for the other half of the harvest, get hammered by low prices.

Justine Chiyesu, a successful entrepreneur farmer, is among the 4 percent. He lives in the village of Chikupiloi, deep in the bush, in a brick house with a tin roof that is a big step up from the thatched huts of his neighbors. The trip to see him took four hours on hard dirt roads that eventually turned into footpaths. The only other visible vehicle besides our four-wheel-drive was a tractor Chiyesu had managed to buy—the only one among several hundred farming families in the area.

Like most Zambians, his neighbors harvest corn by hand, then pound the dried husks with a stick over a wood grate to release the kernels, which they sweep up into sacks. But Chiyesu has a small-scale Chinese threshing machine that separates the grain from the husks. He has hired around fifteen villagers to work in his fields. (He also has two cellphones, one of which frequently chimed in a low voice, “Boss, you have a text message.”) But despite these signs of individual success, there is no electricity in his village—cellphones use solar chargers—and there is only one single-room schoolhouse.

Chiyesu started out small, just like everyone else, but he soon proved he had a talent for business. He worked two hectares for a year by hand, then began working for a distributor selling fertilizers and herbicides. Once he had saved enough to qualify for a tractor loan, he was producing 4 to 5 tons of corn per hectare—about four times the average for a small farmer. He now farms twenty hectares and hopes to expand to fifty—a massive farm by his village’s standards. Like the commercial farmers, he says he has been able to manage even as prices fall because he produces so much. In short, he has successfully followed the model of mechanization, chemicals, scale and high yield. Friendly agrochemical dealers are just down the road. Information on more ecologically friendly farming methods is simply not available.

But Chiyesu is not just earning money from farming. He’s making money from trading, too. Recall that the smallholder farmers selling corn by the side of the road are price-takers—and the price they take is not very good: $4 to $5 a bag. Chiyesu realized there was not much profit in selling to middlemen, who controlled the price and then sold to the mills in town. So he went directly to the mills. Acting as a dealer for 200 to 300 farmers in his village, he would get about double the roadside price, which he passed on to the farmers after transportation costs and a small commission. Both he and his village benefited.

There are similar results across Africa. In Uganda, a US-based nonprofit known as TechnoServe has helped organize 20,000 banana farmers into a cooperative structure and raised crop prices by an average of 70 percent. In Kenya another venture, known as DrumNet, has had success using the Internet to gain access to prices in wholesale markets, coordinate transport, and purchase seeds and supplies in bulk. In Niger, a similar scheme delivers this data by text message—the cheapest and most common way to communicate in Africa. “All the focus has been on inputs,” says Felix Edwards, a World Food Program official in Lusaka, referring to the seeds and chemicals used in growing food. “But there’s very little talk about how the farmer accesses the market—and how he does so at the right price.”

The bottom line: farmers like Chiyesu know that growing more crops is not the sole condition for a livelihood. They have had to create an economic structure that works. This way, they can produce, sell at a price that guarantees an income and create a means of feeding themselves until the next harvest.

* * *

As the headlines about the famine in East Africa continue, it is important to remember that every decade or so, a new food crisis strikes the continent, and every time it plays out in a familiar way: warning signals across aid networks, UN statements about the need for aid, a mounting cry of urgency from NGOs, visits by dignitaries and celebrities—and then, maybe, action to divert a catastrophe. No doubt this will be the script over the next several months.

While the urgent pleas are very real, it’s crucial to look beyond them and the usual short-term solutions to a longer-term and more sustainable approach. Farmers in Africa will surely need to grow more food to avert future famines. But unless they do so in a way that makes food affordable and accessible, even food surpluses won’t avert hunger. Says Edwards, “If you’re sitting thousands of kilometers from Zambia and just encouraging a farmer to grow more, all you’re doing is condemning that farmer to sustainable poverty.”

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