Advancing an Agenda of Inclusive Growth

Mohammed and his maize crop

In the mid-afternoon heat, Mohammed Salumu Lipeni, a farmer, age 42, greets us in the busy centre of Chiemiele Village, in the Ruangwa District of southern Tanzania. Vendors and children gaze as greetings are exchanged, equally curious as to why the daily rhythms have been interrupted. We quickly escape to the shade, finding seats beside a tomato stall and a caucus of flies that immediately directs its attention towards us. Mohammed’s two daughters sit beside him, and as I smile at the younger sibling, she giggles and runs away. Only to return moments later to see another smile, and to flee once more. The void created by our arrival amidst the ebb and flow of daily life has been filled with new rhythms, new reasons for flight, new reasons for laughter. The interruption of certain rhythms has been pacified by the introduction of others.

Farming has always been an imperfect endeavour in pursuit of perfection; that incomplete task handed down from one generation to the next. Mohammed’s father and grandfather were also farmers, dedicated to growing sorghum and cultivating the region’s famous cashews. Mohammed took to the trade, practicing the traditional agriculture he fell into as he grew up. Yet, much like grandmothers in kitchens, who never choreograph but instead dance freely amongst pots and pans, the handing down of knowledge between father and son was often filled with gaps. Mohammed found himself struggling: he lacked proper technique, he wasn’t sure how to manage input supply, and he didn’t know how to prevent pests or diseases. These challenges are not unique to Mohammed. And, when you consider that half of the world’s poorest people are smallholder farmers (they own small plots of land on which they grow primarily for subsistence purposes, and rely almost exclusively on family labour), this same lack of capacity at scale means that the potential to catalyze inclusive growth, accelerate prosperity and protect dignity amongst the poorest of the poor is limited at best and non-existent at worst.

Drive through a verdant southern Tanzania and you note that roadsides are heavily littered with small farming plots, home to tall stalks of maize and drooping banana tree leaves. The cost of failing to ensure that smallholder farmers are equipped to succeed quickly becomes more palpable when you put income aside and reflect on the image of an empty table at dinner time.

The Aga Khan Foundation (AKF) in East Africa, at which I am an International Youth Fellow, recognizes the urgency of the task at hand, and has made supporting farmers a programmatic priority. AKF’s work has been centred around training farmers, and incorporating them into value chains that can spur economic growth across the country. Mohammed enrolled in and benefitted from AKF-led education sessions around planting, harvesting and business management. He also attended an AKF-organized forum, where producers and buyers from Dar es Salaam and across southern Tanzania came together to establish a producer/buyer network. Mohammed is just one of the network’s many success stories — indeed, after attending a forum in Mtwara, buyers were so impressed by the quality of his sunflower oil that they continue to use the network to liaise with him and place purchase orders.

Mohammed’s story illustrates how critical it is to integrate the poorest of the poor into networks that can scale their productivity and, in turn, foster inclusive growth. This is a theory the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth advocates for — that a “[l]ack of access to the many networks of complementary inputs necessary to raise productivity” results in heightened inequality and, concomitantly, an inability to escape from poverty. In this case, “network” doesn’t only refer to the individuals one is connected to — it refers to a variety of inputs such as services, infrastructure and then, of course, people. Step away from the technical terms and the logic becomes clear. “ Imagine the best brain surgeon in the world put to work in a village clinic in sub-Saharan Africa, without high-tech operating room and advanced medical devices,” writes Yuwa Hedrick Wong, the Mastercard Center’s Chief Economist. “Under such circumstances, this extraordinary physician can at best only perform at the level of a general practitioner. Disconnected from vital networks of complementary inputs, her productivity is squelched.”

Apply this theory to other cases across southern Tanzania and the case for its generalized application grows stronger.

In Changarawe Village, AKF connected Nickson “Nick” Mlowe, farm manager at a sprawling forty-acre farm, to a buyer in Dar es Salaam, Ramosh. Incorporating Nick into this value chain means that the farm is now able to move product to market much faster. Impressed by the quality of Changarawe’s product, Ramosh has now stated that it wants to purchase one megaton of capsicum per week from the farm. Nick decided to dedicate five greenhouses to this project and estimates that the collective output will be 1.25 megatons per month, which translates to 312.5 kilograms per week. This leaves the farm with a 688 kilogram shortage, an amount it needs to account for in order to secure Ramosh as a customer and to fulfill this and future purchase orders.

Nick shows off red capscium in one of his greenhouses

To make up the difference, Nick must partner with other capsicum producers. Today, many neighbouring smallholder farmers from the area come to Changarawe to learn from Nick. They then replicate his success at other properties and in other greenhouses. This value chain is making Changarawe an economic engine for the local area, ensuring that smallholder farmers aren’t left behind while giving Nick and his team the opportunity to fill their purchase orders and grow their operations.

Mohammed and Nick’s stories are just two examples of how critical it is to democratize productivity — that is, to scale productivity globally by ensuring knowledge transfer and integration with other stakeholders. Knowledge and integration are “complementary inputs” that build networks upon a strong foundation and strengthen their resilience. How can we ensure that more individuals have greater access to the complementary inputs that build such networks? Beyond the intervention of NGOs, I would argue that we need to emphasize an approach of conscious capitalism underpinned by shared value creation. The private sector must invest in the provision of complementary inputs which, in turn, has the potential to increase revenue generating opportunities and reduce costs. For Nick, this might mean asking Ramosh to invest in scaling the number of greenhouses, enabling greater output to meet growing demand. Similarly, using private sector technologies and agility to prototype and implement digital frameworks can ensure that value chains push Africa’s agricultural industries forward efficiently. And, of course, would represent another step towards advancing an agenda of inclusive growth.

“The soil is the great connector of lives,” wrote the American author Wendell Berry. Connecting farmer to farmer, producer to buyer and, of course, generation to generation. As the afternoon heat dissipates and the sun lowers towards the horizon, Mohammed shares that though his eldest son is eager to pursue medicine, his younger boys are farmers in the making. “I hope the sons who want to be farmers will be richer than the doctor,” quips Mohammed, a grin spreading from cheek to cheek. He has already set aside ten acres of land for them, and plans to bequeath an additional fourty five as part of their inheritance. It is a future they can be proud to inherit. The rain will come, the soil will give life. But it is up to us to work with farmers to ensure that the harvest will be plentiful.

Support for Mohammed and Nick is provided under the Food Value Chain Development Project (Kilimo ni Biashara), a 3-year project under the GIZ programme E4D/SOGA; and financed by UK Aid, Norad, Shell, and the German Government. The project’s goal is to create and facilitate economic opportunities for smallholder farmers and businesses by helping them produce, process, and provide food for external markets, with a focus on the natural resource industry.

The views expressed are entirely my own and do not represent the views or opinions of the AKDN, AKFC, GAC, MECP-Z or any donor/implementing agency related to Kilimo ni Biashara.