Field Notes Blog > Cooperative Farming in Tanzania

  • Cooperative Farming in Tanzania

    June 17, 2019

    I traveled to Tanzania for a two-week Farmer-to-Farmer volunteer assignment at the request of the UWAKICHI Cooperative.

     The cooperative is a group of several hundred farmers in the Kikuvu Village who maintain the canal irrigation system that supplies water to approximately 1500 acres of farmland in the village. Farmers formed the cooperative to share the responsibility of sustaining the irrigation system, and providing a reliable water source for their crops.

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    In use for decades in Tanzania, farmers first dug irrigation canals as trenches in the earth, with natural barriers such as tree branches to guide the water flow. In 1994, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) provided funds to create a modern dam at the river with a series of systems to control the water flow. Today, the UWAKICHI Cooperative sets a schedule for its members, who monitor the canals weekly for debris and adjust the controls depending on farmers’ water needs.

    Farmers benefitting from the system do not have to be cooperative members, but each farmer pays a fee for water use. If the farmer is a member, the fees are less since that farmer also helps to maintain the canals. The village follows a schedule dictated by the water needs of each crop in the village, primarily corn, beans (similar to pinto beans), rice, and vegetables such as tomatoes, cucumber, eggplant, okra, and melon.

    The local farmers wanted to improve their agronomic skills through the Farmer-to-Farmer program, a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) funded program that seeks to match skilled volunteers from the U.S. with training opportunities for agricultural producers and groups in developing countries.

    In previous years, Farmer-to-Farmer volunteers taught village farmers about crop rotation, irrigation, and integrated pest management. Armed with these production skills, the cooperative leaders decided it was time to learn more about the business side of farming. They requested a volunteer who could lead a multi-day workshop for their members on record keeping and budgeting. My skills met their objectives.

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    I learned about the Farmer-to-Farmer program through another Pennsylvania volunteer. It was similar to the work I had done as a Peace Corps Volunteer, but with a much shorter time commitment. I added my resume to the program’s database, and in 2016, I completed my first Farmer-to-Farmer assignment working with university students and a few women’s dairy cooperatives in Colombia, South America.

    As in Colombia, the exact needs of the Tanzanian hosts were unknown before arriving and meeting with the group. Understanding the cooperative’s strategy of moving from subsistence farming systems to profitable agricultural businesses, I prepared for my first assignment by compiling a set of resources I have used in other trainings, particularly the Penn State Extension Ag Alternatives library. It includes materials for record keeping, budgeting and business planning. I also brought my AgChoice resources on building a balance sheet and farm record books. Once I met with the leaders of the cooperative, we discussed their goals and what subject areas I should cover.

    We divided the cooperative into two groups, based on location, with a four-day workshop at each site. Over the course of the four days, we focused on the following areas:

    1. Small Farm Record Keeping
    2. Small Farm Cost / Benefit Analysis
    3. Farm Business Budgeting
    4. Small Farm Financial Management

    The topics are similar to AgChoice’s AgBiz Masters program for young and beginning farmers. Many farms focus on improving production practices, but not as many take the time to improve their business management.

    During the workshops, we discussed several concepts that are easily transferable to farmers anywhere in the world, including breakeven price drivers. For every farm, the breakeven cost of production is an important measure of efficiency. The lower the breakeven price, the more options a farm has to market its product. Farmers can improve the breakeven price in one of two ways: lower the cost of producing the product at the same volume, or increase the volume produced at the same cost.

    Breakeven price drivers are an important concept to the UWAKICHI farmers as their markets and prices are unpredictable. It is also important as we manage the challenging dairy market here in the Northeast U.S. Farms that are more efficient and have a lower breakeven cost of production are able to weather the low milk price environment better than farms that have a higher breakeven milk price.

    I shared the challenges American dairy farmers are facing with the UWAKICHI group. While no farmer likes to hear of others’ struggles, it heartened them to know that all farmers face challenges.

    We also discussed how to increase marketing opportunities. Although not the focus of our workshops, it is a major challenge for the UWAKICHI farmers. Most farmers are price-takers, meaning they sell their produce in the local markets at a competitive price because there is a substantial supply and buyers have the power to negotiate a lower price.

    The final topic at our meetings was how to increase net worth over time. In a profitable business, farms are able to build their net worth through profits and investments in their businesses. As farms move away from purely subsistence to a more defined business strategy, all of them should focus on the performance of the farm over time. With the goal to leave the farm thriving into the next generation, farmers must position their assets to generate profits into the future.

    Ultimately, the objective of these workshops is for participating farmers to apply these skills and teach their neighbors and fellow cooperative members the same techniques.

    I always find it comforting to know that no matter where farms are located, all farmers have the same goals: to care for their families by caring for the land and running a profitable business. Most farmers farm because they feel connected to the land and the lifestyle. While few farmers start out for the business aspect, it is a vital part of a successful farm. The UWAKICHI farmers work with considerably less technology and access to market information than U.S. farmers, but all farms can use the same tools to help better manage their businesses.

    What’s next for the UWAKICHI Cooperative? The leaders said they would like to host a volunteer who can work with them to define new marketing opportunities such as value-added ventures, or contracts that can bring higher commodity prices. They also want to visit the U.S. to see how farmers operate here. If that should happen, I will be excited to share our Pennsylvania agriculture community with them, welcoming with a warm Swahili, “Karibu!”

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