Supporting Farmers in Sustainable Crop Diversification

Supporting Farmers in Sustainable Crop Diversification

About crop diversification

Crop diversification is an important issue for tobacco growers all over the world, often driven by health concerns. The health arguments against tobacco consumption, however, are different from the economic motivations for farmers to grow tobacco. The realities faced by smallholder tobacco farmers must be taken into account and support must be offered for sustainable diversification. Child labour in agriculture, including tobacco growing, often happens on small family farms where children and young workers are helping their parents.

ECLT's support to farmers’ diversification

For over a decade, ECLT has supported farmers’ diversification efforts in multiple countries. Through our projects since 2002, ECLT has seen that tobacco remains an attractive crop for farmers economically, often giving a higher and more stable income than other crops sold on local markets. However, tobacco is rarely grown as a single crop on a farm. Most tobacco farmers are already quite diversified, with tobacco grown in carefully planned rotation with other complementary crops like maize, ground nuts and cassava.
ECLT has also seen that farmers need support to sustainable diversify their crops and livestock. This video shows some of the challenges faced by farmers transitioning away from tobacco after market shifts in Kyrgyzstan.

ECLT's support in Malawi & Tanzania

Support like teaching better farming techniques, access to credit and encouraging collaboration between farmers can make a lasting difference for farmers. In Malawi, for example, ECLT provided seeds and training for farmers to grow high nutrition and drought-tolerant crops such as cassava, sweet potato, soya beans, green beans and helped many raise chickens suited to local environments. In Tanzania, the ECLT project supported young workers withdrawn from child labour to grow profitable tomatoes and supported mothers with microloans to start small businesses.

Lessons on Sustainable Diversification

From these and other ECLT projects in varied contexts, three main lessons have been learnt and can be shared:

1) Economic motives drive farm-level decisions:

Farmers make rational economic decisions about what crops to grow. Given the inherent uncertainty of agriculture, farmers recognise the importance of including high-value crops, like tobacco, as part of the farm mix. The farmer considers straightforward production and marketing issues such as access to seeds, technical support and markets to sell the farm produce. Tobacco is often a crop of choice for the farmer as it pays much more than competing crops, has a guaranteed market and he or she can access production support like seeds and training.

2) Markets for alternative crops are smaller and difficult to enter:

High-value alternatives to tobacco, such as chilies, are often expensive to grow and sometimes costlier than tobacco. These newer crops are also perishable and more difficult to get to market since established trading networks, transport and facilities do not exist, especially in rural areas.

When compared with tobacco, there are often fewer buyers for these alternative crops or the local market for them is thin, and demand is much smaller compared with tobacco, which reduces the price a farmer can get. Where markets exist, there are often high barriers to entry in the form of food safety and quality standards, which tend to exclude small farmers.

3) Long-term investment is needed:

ECLT research has shown that farmers use returns from tobacco to finance their crop diversification. Thus, tobacco production plays an important part in the farmer’s overall “business plan”. Moreover, diversifying takes time, mistakes and failures, which makes it difficult or impossible for farmers with small farms and limited resources.

“It takes investment, it takes time. It is not something that will earn you money in year one or year two. It is going to take 4-5-6 years with sustained investment, and as we say, ‘paying school fees along the way,’” says Adam Gordon-Strong, Vice-President of the Zambia Tobacco Association. It is even harder for small farmers that do not have title to their land and lack access to finance.

Support needed for Smallholder Farmers

Ultimately, for the farmer the choice to diversify is not simply growing tobacco or not growing tobacco. This greatly oversimplifies the issue and detracts attention from the real challenge: to promote viable, high-value crops that offer farmers a realistic choice of how to allocate their resources and reduce poverty. Governments, donors and agricultural buyers must invest in modernising value chains and developing new markets and support services, but this must be done to foster overall agricultural competitiveness rather than just for the sake of promoting an alternative to tobacco.

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