Shrubs, thorny bushes, cactus trees, sandy soils and rocky terrain characterise Same district in Kilimanjaro region, Tanzania, which lies on the lee-ward side of the Pare Mountains. It hardly rains in this region. When it does, rain water floods the lowlands; transport is a nightmare, water runoff from the highlands ruins crops on its way down.
As a result, agriculture in this area is a real challenge for farmers. Most agricultural practices in Same are traditional and depend on rainfall, limited small-scale irrigation and low levels of technological and other inputs. The farming is largely subsistence, with typically low yields obtained for key crops. In some parts of the district, the presence of permanent or temporary surface water provides opportunities for irrigation, earning the farmers higher yields.
Where irrigation infrastructure exists, poor construction means that losses through seepage may amount to 80 percent. Other challenges include low soil fertility caused by prolonged use of disc ploughs in lower lands, use of unimproved or contaminated seeds and improper spacing of different crops.
Further compounding agricultural development in the area is rainfall variability. The lowland plateau receives less than 500mm of rainfall annually; the midlands get 800-1,250mm while the highlands make do with 1,250-2,000mm a year.
With such conditions, many farmers remain trapped in low input, low output agricultural development, with few opportunities to increase income and food security. Consequently, in most years the government is obliged to provide food aid to farmers with outputs so low they can hardly sustain their own families.
Doris Japheth is one such farmer. When the government food aid was not available, she and her three children, Janet Mboneya, 22, Veronica Bonashamba, 19, and Japheth, 3, went hungry. If they were lucky, they had one meal a day.
Whereas she owns three acres of land in Vudee highlands in the district, Doris cultivated beans, tomatoes, maize and potatoes on two and a half acres. She doubled as a casual labourer in other people’s farms in the Bangalala lowlands. Despite every effort she put in the garden, Doris was unable to harvest much. And yet, the wages from farm labour were hardly enough to sustain her family. She earned Tsh3,000 ($1.8) a day for her efforts.
“I did not know how to make my land productive. The area is hilly and whenever it rained, my crops were washed away along with the water running downhill,” says Doris.
That season in 2013, Doris planted an acre each of beans and potatoes and a quarter acre each of maize and tomatoes. However, she only harvested one bag of maize, one bag of beans, two bags of potatoes and 12 tins of tomatoes. The produce fetched very low prices in the market. She sold only two tins of beans for Tsh5,000 ($3) a tin, tomatoes at Tsh5,000 ($3) a tin and the bag of potatoes at Tsh48,000 ($29).
The 41-year-old adds, “Due to the poor crop yields, life was so tough for me and my children. There was never enough food for my family. I was forced to buy food from the market and yet the money I made was not enough to take care of the household needs, cover my monthly house rent and pay school fees for my children.”
Watching her children go hungry, perhaps, was the most painful thing Doris endured.
“Many times I cried in my bed at night thinking about where our next meal was coming from. I couldn’t afford to feed them three meals a day. I had to ration the money I earned so on most days, the children and I went without breakfast. For lunch, I prepared a cup of porridge for each of them and I went without lunch. The main meal was at night when I prepared maize meal and beans,” she says.
To supplement her income, Doris engaged in other commercial activities such as making gravel at a local quarry. With the rocky terrain, the quarry provides employment for the locals. To get gravel, one has to crush huge rocks and splinter them into tiny pieces. The only available tool is a hammer. While this was so labour intensive, it earned her slightly higher wages than that from the farms.
“For each bucket of gravel I crushed, I earned Tsh1,000 ($0.6). I was able to make up to five
buckets a day, which earned me Tsh5,000 ($3). The work was so challenging because sometimes I hit my fingers using the hammer. I would get wounds and blisters on my hands and aches all over my body from the intense work,” says the single mother.
Working on farms on the lowlands was equally tedious.
“Since I live in the highlands, I would wake up at 4:00am in the morning and start walking to the farm. It took me at least two hours to get there. I would work until evening and then walk back home at 4:00pm to take care of my family. I spent two hours to and fro, meaning I spent four hours of my day just walking. Sometimes, the weather changed and it rained while I was either on my way to the farm or at the farm, getting me wet,” says Doris, adding, “It was very difficult working all day on an empty stomach but I had to keep going for my children.
“Sometimes, I stopped the children from going to school so they could help me in the garden or quarry so we could earn more money.”
When the children fell sick, Doris borrowed money from her neighbours to clear hospital bills. And when they healed, she went back to doing petty jobs in order to pay her debts.
“It was so discouraging working all day and making so little, until one day last year, when I received a phone call from a friend telling me about an organisation that was planning to start training farmers on better farming practices and how to get good yields. I decided to join the group and attended my first meeting. I must say I was very lucky that CARE International selected me as a champion farmer in their Global Water Initiative East Africa programme.”
Among the new conservation agriculture techniques Doris learnt was bench terraces, which she uses to manage runoff and retain soil moisture content. She also uses compost manure to fertilise her crops. In addition, she practices cover cropping, mixed cropping and crop rotation where she plants maize, beans, potatoes and tomatoes alternately.
“The training I have received from CARE has made a positive impact on my life. I have experienced increased yields; I can cultivate on a small piece of land and get high yields,” she says.
Only recently, Doris enjoyed a good harvest. From a quarter acre of land, she harvested six tins of potatoes, weighing 6kg each and sold them at Tsh10,000 ($6) each.
“Today, my life has changed. I feel privileged to say that currently I don’t experience any food insecurity. I get my three meals a day. I feed my family in the morning, afternoon and evening based on the new practices I have adopted. I no longer walk to the lowlands to cultivate but use my own land here in the highlands. When I harvest, I have enough food to sell and get an income but also enough food to last until the next harvest.”
Now, Doris expects other people to come and labour in her gardens for a fee.
“It’s a bad thing if God is performing miracles in your life and you don’t appreciate,” she says.
“Although I don’t have a house right now, I believe that I will have a very good house in the near future.”
GWI EA, Uganda