Farmers Need to Speak For Themselves

“Science can make farming more resilient, as agriculture is actually very scientific,” says Ruramiso Mashumba a young smallholder farmer from Zimbabwe. But how can we best match technology solutions with farmer needs, and how can smallholder farmers communicate those needs back to scientists and policymakers? Ruramiso shares her thoughts.

Everything we do as farmers is science. When we plant, the crops we plant, the seeds we plant, the fertilizers we select, the herbicides and insecticides we use – all of these decisions are based in science. Science goes hand in hand with farming, and as we advance scientific research and develop new innovations, agriculture becomes more efficient, which helps us to farm better.

Access to Technology

Farmers need a variety of tools to farm better and in a more cost-effective manner. For example, we operate outside and depend on the weather, so we need to be able to analyze weather conditions.  We need tools that can let us know the moisture levels in our soils, tools that determine the pH of our soils, but many farmers – especially smallholders like myself – do not have access to such technologies. Yet tools like these can help us achieve high yields on a small piece of land while farming it in a sustainable way.

In terms of what I need on my farm, there are a lot of challenges I face each year. Here are four of the top things my farm needs right now:

1. No-Till Equipment

Right now, I am looking at moving my farm from traditional tilling to no-till. I have been looking for no-till equipment that is reasonably priced for my area, but I am finding there is very little available on this part of the continent that is actually affordable for smallholder farmers.

2. Soil Analysis Tools

In Zimbabwe, we need to improve on our soil analysis. Our laboratories are not able to provide us with accurate information, so instead, we need to send our soil samples to South Africa for comprehensive testing. If you imagine the distance that our soil travels, sometimes samples might not arrive at the laboratory in the same state as when they left the farm, which means that our soil samples are compromised. We need to better develop our laboratories. We should have the capacity for advanced soil testing technology in Zimbabwe so that there is no reason to send soil samples across the continent for results.

3. Access to Quality Seed

This season, I was due to plant a seed variety that was supposed to come from South Africa. But it took so long for the paperwork to go through that I was unable to grow it. Sorting through the different regulations and paperwork to access different seed varieties is another challenge that farmers face, which is often the result of politics.

I look at the types of seeds that are available to farmers like me on the market. For crops like maize, we have good cultivars. But there are lots of other high-performing seeds that can produce good returns for our farmers that have yet to be made available. We need access to improved seed that has been tested and which gives us high returns. As this is not available, we have had to resort to using a lot of recycled seeds instead.

4. Crop Protection Products

We need to solve the challenge of fall armyworm, which has been on our farms for the past four years. And we need to access good herbicides. This season was very difficult in terms of access to herbicides. I have tried quite a lot of different solutions to tackle weeds, but it would have been beneficial to have had good herbicides to help us.

Learning from Farmers: Matching Innovations to Community Needs

When we talk about farming in Africa, we often speak about Africa as though it is a single country. Africa has 54 countries in it, and within those 54 countries, there are many different languages. There are also varying climatic conditions and very different farms. Right now, Africa is lagging behind. We need to increase investment in research and science in the African continent so that we can improve access to technology for farmers.

We need to have more accurate information. We cannot generalize and talk about African smallholder farmers. We need to give smallholder farmers the opportunity to voice their needs by country, by climatic conditions and by local challenges. When we start looking at in those terms, then we can create specific tools that address the individual needs of these communities.

In addition, many tools are designed with a Western mindset. In certain countries, the use of mobile applications works, because people are literate in those communities, and they have access to internet connectivity and electricity. In the community where I am currently working, very few people know how to write their name. If they do not know how to sign their own name, then using a mobile application is going to be very difficult for them, and for those who can read and write, they cannot always afford to buy a smartphone.

Therefore, it is about what is relevant for smallholder farmers. Sometimes it is portrayed that smallholder farmers do not want certain technologies, but it is simply because they do not understand those technologies, and/or they are not adapted to the local conditions in which those farmers are farming. When designing new technologies, it is important to consider the macro and micro challenges that smallholders face.

Farmers Need to Speak for Themselves

This year will see the first United Nations (UN) Food Systems Summit take place in September. One of the action tracks being discussed at the Summit is ensuring access to safe and nutritious food for all. Farmers will play a key role in delivering this action track, along with the second UN Sustainable Development Goal that aims to end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture.

Yet, while farmers are the end users of a lot of the technology and ultimately also consumers in the food system, their voices are sometimes missing during discussions on agriculture and our food systems. For too long these conversations have taken place without them. Farmers absolutely must be involved in this Summit – along with other forums – as it is crucial for people to hear their voices to understand what farmers really need. Only then will we start to see change across our food systems.