Appropriate technologies?

A few weeks back I had the opportunity to discuss technology options for Zimbabwean farming with two different groups. They had very different ideas about what was appropriate. And neither seemed to have asked farmers themselves. Nor had they taken account of the particular technological challenges of

Ian Scoones is a Professorial Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex.
Ian Scoones is a Professorial Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex.

Zimbabwe’s agrarian structure. Both, for different reasons, seemed, to me at least, inappropriate technologies for the vast mass of Zimbabwean settings.

An intensive approach

The first was a discussion around ‘Conservation Agriculture’ in Wondedzo Extension, a villagised A1 scheme in Masvingo district where CA is being promoted by an NGO, Hope Tariro. This low-till approach, involving digging planting pits by hoe in small areas to concentrate moisture and fertility inputs, is being pushed by donors in Zimbabwe in a big way. It is central to programmes led by the FAO, as well as across numerous NGOs. It is supported by the EU and DFID, among other donors, and is backstopped by a range of technical support agencies.

I talked to the local extension agent in the area who was preparing for the planting season with his demonstration farmers. He estimated he spent around 60% of this time during the farming season supporting CA activities in the area. He was politely equivocal about the approach but he was clear it was diverting his time from other activities. It is an extremely intensive gardening approach, which requires an area to be fenced off and all crop residues returned to the land. Farmers refer to it as ‘dig and die’ due to the backbreaking work involved but they are glad of the free seed (and in some cases fertiliser too). However, is this an appropriate technology for the new resettlements?

Backward farming

On very small areas, with substantial labour inputs, yield increases are clearly possible but this is not an approach that will deliver sustained growth in farm production in the larger arable plots of the new resettlements. Designed for micro garden plots, it may be appropriate for some areas but not many. In a discussion at the nearby irrigation scheme, we raised the idea of testing out CA there. A woman immediately jumped up and exclaimed: “No! We will not do this! This is our cooperative irrigation. If we have the NGO here, they will make us irrigate with buckets!” There was general agreement: the NGO imposed ideas. The discussion moved on to the problems of CA, and the usual list spilled out. Too much labour, small areas, burning of crops with concentration of fertiliser and so on.

The next opportunity to discuss farm technology came a few days later at the China Agricultural Technology Demonstration Centre. The agricultural machinery company, Menoble, an offshoot of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Mechanisation Sciences, is running it.

The model, it was explained, is used on the large-scale commercial farms of NE China, where the company has its major market. What about the famous small-scale farms of China? I asked. No, this is backward farming, not the future, it was argued by one official.

Neither group had, it seems, thought about the demands of the new agrarian structure. Today, 90% of Zimbabwe’s farmers are smallholders, representing 80% of the farmed land. This is a dramatic change from the past. The argument of the donors and NGOs pushing CA is that many of these farms in the communal areas are very small – perhaps only one or two hectares. Here, an intensive gardening approach may be appropriate, if the labour is available.

What about the new resettlements? The average holding per household in the A1 schemes is 30-40ha, with cultivated areas in our study sites in Masvingo now averaging 5-10ha. CA does not make sense in these areas. Nor does most of the Chinese machinery on offer at Gwebi. The Chinese company officials argue that production should occur on large, modern, efficient farms, equipped with the latest machinery.

Not a solution

Zimbabwean farmers are very polite and will not turn away an NGO, in case its work can be redirected towards something useful. They are happy to take free inputs (worth around $40 per household) but they are reluctant to see this as a solution. Equally, extension workers and farmers alike will attend the Chinese training courses and marvel at the big machines but will they take up the suggested technical options? Even if they could afford them, this is extremely unlikely.

Here we have two sets of inappropriate technology being pushed by two very different sets of donors, driven by particular perceptions and assumptions. Technology transfer has come back into fashion in the aid world but all the criticism that Robert Chambers and others made in the past still apply.

In a new agrarian setting, there are some real technological challenges but these will have to be met with a much better sense of scale requirements and farmer needs and priorities.

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