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Sustainable futures

Enhancing the resilience of smallholder communities in Tanzania

In large areas of Africa, including Tanzania, around 57% of the population are poor smallholders, and they feed two-thirds of the developing world – that’s roughly two billion people. Concerningly, these communities are particularly susceptible to chronic hunger, food insecurity, malnutrition and climate change. These problems can be visualised as a vicious circle between small-scale agriculture, rural poverty and climate vulnerability. Breaking this cycle is largely dependent upon building local resilience through intervention from other countries and organisations by providing training, financial support and access to external markets. We must, however, also learn from the lessons of development intervention in the past.

Prof. Dr. Xiaoyun Li from China Agricultural University (right) and farmers in Morogoro Province, Tanzania

With this in mind, we believe a key step to building community resilience is using an innovation platform – a system of connecting thoughts, ideas, skills and resources among multiple stakeholders - to help local farmers in adopting agricultural technologies which are matched to local resources. This can account for the many local complexities in Tanzania, allowing participants to develop trust, understanding and sharing of knowledge and resources.

Just look to the success in 2007 of an international project in Morogoro Province, Tanzania, to understand the necessity for building an innovation platform. Having already undertaken substantial research on poverty alleviation in rural China, a research team from China Agricultural University (CAU) conducted surveys, identifying similarities between the rural poor in Morogoro and Chinese farmers in the early 1980s, in terms of the shortage in resources and services but surplus in labour force. The findings led to the development of a research roadmap, creating a joint project between the CAU team and the Morogoro Provincial Government in 2012, with further support from other organizations. The result: an innovation platform built for stakeholders to assist farmers in adopting technologies which enhance their resilience to climate change.

The platform was a joint effort from universities (CAU and Sokoine University of Agriculture in Morogoro), providing technical support, and the provincial government, for management and coordination. It allows collaboration between extension officers, chief executive officers, community leaders and demonstration farmers in villages across ten districts. Staying connected is also a key component of the platform; participatory farmers are not only able to learn new skills from professional training courses, but they can also discuss experiences on-line via Wechat, a Chinese communication platform.

Today, we can see significant results. By August 2021, around 80% of local farmers in targeted areas have adopted a new, standardised maize production technology with some remarkable outcomes - maize yield has tripled and income has doubled. And this has not been limited to Morogoro, as the system has spread to other regions of Tanzania and neighbouring countries.

"It is vital for international development agencies to understand local knowledge, and to adopt good practices for empowering smallholder farmers against rural poverty and climate change."
Dr Bin Wu

This case has been recognized by the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation as a reference for an alternative development approach in Africa. As we reflect on the outcomes of the project, three important policy implications can be drawn.

Firstly, it is vital for international development agencies to understand local knowledge, and to adopt good practices for empowering smallholder farmers against rural poverty and climate change. In this regard, China’s experience in agricultural innovation and tackling poverty in the past four decades can be used as a valuable resource for the promotion of community resilience in Africa.

Secondly, considering the complexity and constraints for poor smallholders in Africa, developing an innovation platform in host communities should be prioritised to ensure mutual trust and to share knowledge, experience and resources. Among multiple stakeholders, in particular, we call for local government involvement in Africa to better coordinate farmers’ collaborations with international partners. In our view, devaluing the role of national or local governments may be partly responsible for the failures of many international projects.

Finally, the UK and China’s governments have shared common interests and commitments to climate change and rural sustainable development since 2010. Taking into account the interweaved nature of climate change, poverty alleviation and food security in Africa, enhancing the resilience of poor smallholders offers a good opportunity to develop a close, triangular relationship between the UK, China and partner countries through joint research and development intervention. This case provides a reference for UK-China collaboration in Africa and beyond.

Gubo Qi and Bin Wu

Dr. Gubo Qi is a Professor at the College of International Development and Global Agriculture, China Agricultural University. Dr. Bin Wu is a Senior Research Fellow at the Haydn Green Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, University of Nottingham Business School. 

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