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Open sesame: how cash crops build climate change resilience

30 November 2016

Open sesame: how cash crops build climate change resilience

By Steve Ball, Farm Africa's Country Director, Tanzania

As we come to the close of 2016, a year that the UN has reported as the hottest on record – and a new high for the third year in a row – it’s more important than ever that we take a stand on behalf of Africa’s smallholders. These farmers have contributed so little towards causing global warming, yet their living conditions, livelihoods, food supply and ability to support their families are so closely bound up with climatic conditions.

In northern Tanzania, where Farm Africa has several projects, smallholder farmers are on the front line of climate shocks. With lower than usual rainfall predicted for the end of this year, we’ve been working to help farmers prepare for water scarcity, so that they will still stand a reasonable chance of bringing in a good harvest and earning a decent income, whatever the weather.

At Farm Africa, we believe that climate-smart agriculture is simply good agriculture. Building up lucrative farming businesses that can weather a drought or a period of intense rainfall is crucial to preparing for an uncertain future.

Diversification spreads risk

Our work in Tanzania does just that – it helps farmers be climate-smart and earn more from their farms. For example, in the Dodoma region we’ve encouraged farmers to grow sesame, a drought-tolerant crop that requires less water than more traditional crops such as maize.

And by growing sesame alongside pigeon peas, sunflowers or maize, farmers spread their risks, so that if one crop suffers, they’re less likely to face total crop failure.

Sesame has the added advantage of being a cash crop that’s in demand both nationally and internationally. So farmers who are able to grow sufficient quantities, either individually or as part of a cooperative, have the chance of setting up lucrative trade deals, which in turn gives them the opportunity to raise funds to further invest in their farms.

Accessing markets

That’s where Farm Africa comes in – we help farmers commercialise and build relationships with buyers so that they can sell more crops for a higher amount, and get the most from their farms. As part of this project we’ve helped to set up district platforms, which brings together buyers, farmers and government officials to make sure that the market is functioning properly.

A crucial role in building agricultural trade deals is played by middlemen, who are sometimes portrayed as profit-hungry and exploitative. But in well-functioning markets they play a vital role as knowledge brokers – sharing their knowledge of local markets and buyers’ needs to the benefit of local farmers. In our sesame project in Tanzania we use ‘community entrepreneurs’, who work within the farming community rather than for the buyers, and allow farmers to negotiate directly with buyers rather than going through a trader with less knowledge of the local conditions.

We recently brokered a trade deal between sesame farmers in Dodoma and a large exporter of sesame, Pentagon, which demonstrates how effective this approach can be. With this trade agreement in place, farmers are earning 1,800-1,850 Tanzanian shillings per kilogram of seeds, while in local markets they would receive around TSh 1,700/-. We’re in discussion with other multinational companies too – we hope that this will be the first deal of many.

Because for smallholder farmers, many of whom live below the poverty line, securing higher prices is a vital springboard to being able to invest in diversifying the range of crops they grow and building thriving, climate-resilient farms.