Peas and beans are not peanuts: how small farmers defy poverty

Three quarters of the Tanzanian population are farmers. Many are extremely poor. Their income and nutrition – in short, their entire existence – depend directly on the harvest. The cultivation of pulses should offer families stable nutrition and a secure income.

Life is a lottery for small farmers on the flat terrain of Masasi, a rural district in South Tanzania. The weather has become unpredictable due to climate change. If it rains the fields turn green. But if there is no rain, it arrives too late or there is not enough, the farmers have to go hungry until the next harvest.

The unpredictable weather is one challenge, while other problems such as unsuitable arable production methods, poor seed quality and a lack of knowledge about how to market and sell their products are another. This is a vicious circle leading the majority of small farmers in South Tanzania to suffer extreme poverty.

Tackling the root causes of the problem

Together with the local partner organisation KIMAS, SWISSAID has devised a project that starts in the actual fields. The cultivation of pulses is intended to tackle the root causes of the problem. Peas and other pulses can be cultivated at low cost, so many farmers can cultivate their fields with these crops. Another advantage is that pulses offer two potential cultivation and harvest cycles per season. And last but not least, nutritious beans are also a valuable source of protein for a rural population with a limited choice of food.

The aim is to produce a harvest with a substantial yield, enabling the families not only to have enough to live on after selling their produce, but also to supplement their income. Diversification reduces reliance on cashew cultivation that depends on global markets and is the region’s main generator of income.

Off to school: put down the hoe and listen!

With their sights set on this goal, it is not surprising that the farmers are extremely keen to learn about modern agricultural practices. They can improve their knowledge in the practical field schools or farmer field schools (FFS). Approximately 680 farmers in 27 groups listen to how they can increase the volume and quality of their production. They also discuss methods for pest-free storage of the peas and beans. Students, who are particularly keen, also train to become advisors so when the project ends and following the departure of the partner organisation they can continue to guide their colleagues offering help and advice. This is a novelty on this sparse stretch of land – previously, the farmers had to cope without advice or tips from experts which has been another contributing factor to the poor yields.

For example, Mwanalifa, a 45-year-old farmer, and mother of four has learned how to produce organic pesticide herself: “I’ve already produced organic pesticide twice. Because I can use local materials for this, it’s much cheaper than buying it. Aside from that, chemical pesticides are dangerous and harmful to your health. Recently, a man in the neighbouring village died because of it.”

The seed bears fruit

A seed bank will be established to make available resilient, high-yield seeds at favourable prices, which last for several seasons. Hence, the seed can be safely stored and sold to the farmers for a fair price at the start of the sowing season.
For example, Bambara: during an earlier project phase, all farmers received Bambara groundnut seeds instead of pigeon pea seeds. This groundnut variety is extremely resistant to disease. The herbaceous, flat creeping plant is well adapted to arid conditions. It produces its “beans” underground and is therefore also known as the ‘earth pea’. Either the young husks or dried seeds can be used. Cultivation of the Bambara groundnut can bring in food as well as income for the farmers, even if there is hardly any rain. In addition, Bambara is more suitable than pigeon peas for hybrid cultivation with cashews, as there is less risk of the transfer of disease to the nut trees. The farmers have learned how to identify the best seeds and to store the seed safely for the next season.

Where the weakest people don’t miss out

For widowed or single women, those affected by HIV/ AIDS, disabled people, the elderly or households managed by children without any help from adults, everyday life in Masasi is twice as tough to cope with. They are harder hit by poverty and have less money, time and energy for work. It is even more crucial for them to participate in the project; and if necessary, they also receive help with sowing or weeding.

Mwanalifa, for instance, is solely responsible for the fields, farm and children after separating from her husband: “Ten years ago my husband left me and I still haven’t met anyone new. It’s very tough coping alone as a woman: I have to make all my own decisions and I have nobody to help me with the work.”

Smart investment of earnings

In Tanzania, gardening is traditionally regarded as women’s work. Since the cultivation of pulses is extremely important, the women benefit from this in particular. They use their income to pay for school expenses, clothing or medical healthcare. Sometimes the money even goes further. Aziza Abdallah from Chiungutwa village says: “I was able to buy a bicycle from the proceeds of my harvest. The bicycle is incredibly helpful when I’m collecting and transporting water!” The women also think about the longer term: they set up saving groups and regularly put aside part of their income to fund bigger purchases such as a communal grain store.

A bicycle or better gardening equipment, renting a tractor or ox and cart make the hard work much easier, while buying a radio guarantees connection to the outside world. Only those who are informed about what is going on in the country can lobby for their rights – for instance, fair prices for their products.

Sweet plans: owning a bakery

It is the small steps that transform people’s lives in Masasi for the better. The infrastructure is still appalling, the streets and water supply are in a poor state of repair or non-existent and medical healthcare is inadequate, especially for women and children.

But things are starting to head in the right direction. Thanks to the practical lessons at the FFS, the farmers have learned how to increase their production. Today, they harvest nearly three times as much from the same field. Peter Mlungusye, a farmer from Chisegu village, can pick 230 kilograms of Mung beans from the bushes on just one acre of land (an acre is equivalent to about 4,047 square metres). Prior to attending the FFS, he could only harvest 89 kilos. The bean farmers work in marketing cooperatives to promote fair prices for their products. Price trends at market are also playing into their hands: between 2010 and 2012, the price for a kilo of pulses doubled – the price is now about 45 centimes. 

Whereas until recently the men, women and children only had enough food for one meal a day, now they have food on their plates at least twice a day. And Mwanalifa’s latest idea is even more tangible than ever, “I want to work even harder and buy some more land and expand my production. When I have enough money set aside, I would like to open a small bakery and sell cakes.” It’s not impossible that someday she’ll be supplying the people in Masasi with cake and biscuits – she certainly isn’t lacking in initiative, patience and creativity!