With unfavourable market structures, resource depletion and land pressures, climate variability has a significant impact on small-scale farmers in Tanzania. In this context, sustainable agriculture offers a possible path towards resilience.

“Panda miti, kata mti” (Plant trees, cut a tree)

This phrase was the overarching slogan of a meeting in the village of Ruvuma, in the Uluguru Mountains, between members of Sustainable Agriculture Tanzania (SAT) and some 30 farmers determined to restore their slowly degrading forest. The mountain range creates a lush backdrop for the region’s capital Morogoro, home to the country’s largest agricultural university, Sokoine University of Agriculture. Like most of Tanzania, this region has been feeling the impacts of climate change over the past decade, with rain variability and increasing temperature affecting crop production and leading to a reduction in the availability of water, along with land erosion and biodiversity loss. With a population of nearly 50 million people, of which two-thirds are engaged in predominantly rain dependent subsistence farming, the changing climate is likely to put pressure on already difficult livelihoods for a great number of people in Tanzania.

But does the slow onset of climate changes in Tanzania mean the end of its agriculture? There are a range of factors affecting agriculture in the country, including poor farming practices, the depletion of natural resources and economic issues. However, research has shown that the principles of agroecological and organic farming can increase the resilience of small-scale farming, making it more sustainable and productive. Organisations such as SAT work with farmers in Tanzania to teach practices that can help them survive and thrive in the climate changes they are facing.


View into the valley from Ruvuma village: Farm plots are typically located on the visibe slopes

Negotiating the problems : De-agrarianization and the loss of traditional farming

In Tanzania small-scale farmers (SSF) are defined as farmers with land ranging between 0.5 – 2.4 hectares. Although SSF outputs are low, several factors make it difficult for farmers to live off farming. For instance, the growth of supermarkets and associated procurement chains in Sub-Saharan Africa are a serious threat to SSF who are largely unable to compete with standards on homogeneity, availability and timeliness of products. But before delving too far down the value chain, let’s take a few steps back up and consider crop production.

Land degradation and biodiversity loss are among central ecosystem service losses that have been observed in Sub-Saharan Africa for several decades now. Causes are manifold: over-grazing, deforestation, land tenure and availability issues and subsequent over-cultivation. For example, traditionally in the Kilimanjaro region in Northern Tanzania, when soil fertility was in decline, a field was left in fallow and another piece of land was used instead. As population started to grow in the 1960s, pressures on land heightened as plots were traditionally divided along heritage lines. When households could no longer afford to leave their diminishing plots fallow because of food demand, soils were increasingly overworked, with fertility falling along with nutrient availability.

In an attempt to offset some of these nutrient imbalances (notably nitrogen) and in order to increase food production, the government offered farmers subsidised input packages under the Tanzanian National Agricultural Input Voucher Scheme (NAIVS). Farmers were advised on what crops to grow, monocropping was favoured and farmers were encouraged to replace traditional fertilisers, composed of animal manure, with ‘improved’ synthetic fertilisers. In Ruvuma, where I met with farmers’ groups, many farmers saw their yields increase in the first season of input use. But it was not long before farmers were faced with increasing debt due to dependency on these chemical inputs. They also witnessed a decline in soil moisture and slow erosion of their slope-based land.

Moreover, with farmers producing the same few crops, there was a quick loss of biodiversity (likely to have contributed to an increased use of pesticides as natural predators were killed off) and notably, market competition amongst villagers. Janet Maro, founding director of SAT, succinctly captures this conundrum: “…they realized that everybody is producing cabbage. So we all have cabbages. Now who is going to buy whose cabbage?” Agitated by the lack of government support and investment in policies that reach the most vulnerable farmers, Maro laments: “They don’t support knowledge dissemination or appropriate technologies. It’s not everywhere where farmers need to use a tractor (…) You look at [all] these farmers living on these slopes – what are they going to do with a power tiller?” The implementation of national policies was counter-productive in this part of Tanzania.

Sustainable agriculture: Filling the gaps

What solutions remain for small holder farmers? Faced with market pressures, changing climate patterns, land pressures and very little investment capital, how can they sustain their livelihoods in farming?

In the context of climate change and the vulnerabilities discussed here, farmers are in dire need of agricultural approaches that build resilience, increase food production and income over time, and are affordable. Farm design plays a central role as it allows for efficient use of land and available resources, as does the use of closed-cycle systems where input materials are sourced locally and ecosystems are enrichened throughout the farming process, instead of being slowly depleted. Working with over 2,500 farmers, SAT began to create a basis for resilience on farms: it introduced simple water harvesting techniques such as swales and roof catchment, making farms less susceptible to drought. Further, additional earth works on farms, such as terracing plots on slopes, decreased the risk of soil erosion. Agroforestry (AF) and Conservation Agriculture (CA) were two illustrative approaches used to show the potential of sustainable practices in achieving the named goals.

The use of AF – an integrated approach in which trees, shrubs and crops are combined –  supports food production by retaining moisture in the soil, thereby increasing nutrients available for surrounding plants and breaking strong winds that might otherwise damage crops on the farm. In a study with 103 coffee farmers in Mwanga Tanzania, a research group from Sokoine University in Morogoro found that AF enhanced the resilience of farming systems in the face of changing climate. Legume-based agroforestry (which typically includes a legume nitrogen-fixing tree such as gliricidia or the acacia, alongside fruit-bearing trees) serves as a sustainable substitute for inorganic fertiliser. Moreover, the variety of root systems in AF creates a network that holds soil together and taps deeper into nutrient and water resources than vegetable crops alone could. Significantly, their study showed that farmers who used AF experienced less crop loss and held an average annual income of 988 032 TAS (approximately 534 EUR) higher than that of their monocropping counterparts.

Healthy soil, with good physical and chemical characteristics, is essential for crop productivity. Maro comments on the challenges ahead for the farming communities: “The farmers have to revive this soil – to build it up again, build the soil organic matter, to plant trees. This monoculture kind of farming that [the government] had introduced was a big flop.” A study carried out in the Uluguru Mountains showed that Conservation Agriculture (CA) – a method combining soil management practices including reduced soil disturbance, permanent cover crop and crop rotation, is beneficial for crop production. Studying maize production specifically, the researchers found that yields increased significantly where farmers mulched and reduced tillage.

Challenges for agroecology in Tanzania

Agroecological approaches are only slowly being implemented in Tanzania. Key difficulties in the dissemination of these methods in Tanzania, are a lack of recognized expertise in sustainable practices, strong incentives for cash crops and rapid population growth, which puts pressure on already fragile food security. Facing a purely economic discourse on food production that fails to address questions around health, equity or access, agroecology has a tough battle here.

And yet, in a country where a vast portion of the population relies on farming for subsistence, the need for low input-high yield, resilient and sustainable farming practices is a pressing need for the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of farmers. Supporting smallholders to continue sustaining their livelihoods is especially crucial at a time, where climate pressures are forcing people to migrate in many of the least developed countries. The kind of effort needed demands partnerships with government bodies, farming associations, NGOs and charities as well as social media platforms, in order to facilitate the dissemination of knowledge and input resources.

In the spirit of Ruvuma’s farmers’ association: “Twendeni mbele, Kilimo-HAI!”, which translates as “Let’s go forward, Organic Farming” with “HAI!” shouted in unison by all present.

The work of organisations such as SAT, the Permaculture Institute-Kenya (PRI) and Kilimohai, which place an emphasis on organic and agreocological farming, as well as media productions such as “Shamba Shape Up” Media or Tigo Kilimo working towards information dissemination that reaches the most rural farmers, are compelling examples of how long term sustainable solutions can be achieved in collaboration with SSF across East Africa.

For a full list of references, click here. Photographs: Sophie Rottmann

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