By Ido Shargal
On this particularly hot day, I visited Robson’s farm. Robson, who lived in the village of Mashekiri, was one of the most involved farmers in his community and, unlike the other farmers, hadn’t missed a single farmers group meeting, displaying great enthusiasm for the collective farm project. He was so friendly and engaging that it had not occurred to me just how dire the situation was for Robson and his family until he showed me around that day. As we surveyed his land, Robson opened the palm of his hand to show me the maize and soybean seeds he had planted a few months earlier and pointed to the parched land and then the sky to indicate that the rains had not come that year, just as in the past few seasons. His crops had failed. Even with seasonal part-time work to supplement his income, with five children and seven mouths to feed, they could only afford one meal a day. It was shocking for me to realize how Robson and his entire family’s survival hung by a precarious thread.
Can collective farming stimulate development for small-scale farmers? My work as a community affairs liaison at the mayor’s office in my hometown of New York City taught me that, while underserved communities were the most impacted by underrepresentation and economic hardship, coalition building, organizing, and engagement could help these communities gain access to newfound opportunities and solutions to vexing problems. A few years later, eager to see if some of my experience could be applied to agricultural development, I spent five months in Zambia (2019-2020) as part of a community-wide assessment and mapping project aimed at establishing and maintaining long-term, self-sustaining collective farming in the Chanyanya region.
I traveled to Zambia through an Israeli NGO, Tevel B’Tzedek (The Earth in Justice), which had just begun working in the country. Tevel B’Tzedek’s (Tevel) participatory approach to rural-based development, aimed at building community governance and activism, is what drew me to the organization. Tevel’s vision is to create sustainable, healthy, and inclusive rural communities that provide opportunities for prosperity and resilience. Motivated by the Jewish principle of tikkun olam (repairing the world), the organization seeks to achieve 1) empowered, active communities with access to decision-makers, information and resources; and 2) improved livelihood outcomes and quality of life. Tevel is tackling an urgent problem that marginalized communities face—food production—through agriculture-based community development. At the same time, its work addresses other critical community needs, such as women’s and youth empowerment, education, and public health.
I was drawn to Tevel’s participatory approach because it spoke to broader questions I had as I embarked on my first development project; indeed, questions that face the entire development field: to what extent would I—and the organization—be viewed as outsiders, bringing “first-world” answers to these people’s challenges? Would the organization be welcomed and embraced by the community—and would the collective farm live on past the organization’s two-year involvement—or would our efforts fall on deaf ears and fail? Worse, could the project cause more harm than good? Tevel’s emphasis on a bottom-up, community-driven approach to development seemed like an attractive solution to some of these major questions.
My experience in Zambia was deeply moving not only because of the opportunity I had to put my mind to community-wide challenges, but primarily because of the people. Despite being a complete stranger, I was treated with overwhelming kindness and generosity by those I met and would come to know, who themselves demonstrated remarkable grace, dignity, and strength of spirit in the face of hardship and innumerable obstacles.
Still, the project had its share of challenges and frustrations. The biggest challenge was getting the project off the ground—particularly for an organization just starting off in Zambia—compounded by the steep learning curve that a bottom-up, participatory approach truly entailed. For example, while enthusiasm and participation at the start of the formation of the farmers groups was high, attendance quickly dropped off when villagers found out that Tevel was not in the business of distributing handouts. Cultural differences were another obstacle. It was common, for example, for meetings to regularly start two hours after the time scheduled. It would take time, effort, and persistence to gain and build trust to bridge those differences and create the environment necessary to enable the community to develop a sense of ownership of the project and carry it forward.
Then there was the reality on the ground.
Chanyanya is a relatively isolated region located in central Zambia 75 kilometers from the capital, Lusaka, a four-hour journey on partially unpaved roads that make it difficult for farmers to access markets in Lusaka and the nearby town of Kafue. Chanyanya’s villages have no running water and most have no electricity either. The villagers, women and youth, often have to traverse long distances in order to procure water for drinking and bathing. In recent years, climate change has led to increasing dry spells, droughts, deforestation, and failed crops. The villagers use charcoal and firewood for cooking, which has resulted in further deforestation. A few decades ago, Chanyanya was a forest; now there are almost no trees. The overwhelming majority of Chanyanya’s villagers grow maize, Zambia’s staple crop. Farmers rely on rainfall to grow their crops. Not only does this monocropping lead to an unbalanced diet, but it is a recipe for food insecurity when the rains fail.
Ultimately, I came to realize that the participatory approach was also instrumental in helping to shape how the villagers and I viewed my role within the organization and the community. By empowering the community to steer the project and assert control of all decisions affecting the farm and the group’s management, the project gave the villagers agency, a vested interest in the success of their work. To further stimulate involvement, all community members were encouraged to speak up and participate in group meetings and activities. The villagers identified what they perceived to be the biggest challenges facing the community, and potential solutions to those challenges. This helped ensure that they, not Tevel, were at the forefront of the endeavor.
While many villagers could speak English, home visits and formal group meetings were typically led by local Zambian staff and conducted in the local languages. (There are seventy-two tribes in Zambia and four major ethnolinguistic groups in the Chanyanya region: Nyanja, Bemba, Tonga, and Lozi.) Present at all these meetings, I became increasingly adept at understanding meaning through context, body language, and translation when necessary.
As part of the first cohort of Tevel’s project in Zambia, I had the opportunity to map out the main challenges facing Chanyanya’s small-scale farmers in the villages of Kawama, Mashekiri, Magoba, Demu A+B, and Demu South, and consider the best options for confronting these issues. Chanyanya’s farmers, most of whom live hand to mouth and engage in subsistence agriculture, face major obstacles to their livelihoods: food insecurity, poverty, climate change, lack of irrigation, high input costs, and lack of market access.
Collective farming, a lynchpin of Tevel’s agriculture program, implements measures that diversify risk and maximize crop yield. As such, it is a critical tool smallholders can use to improve their food and income security. In collective farming, multiple farmers run their holdings as a joint enterprise. While there are various cooperative typologies across development practice, Tevel’s collective farming model is inspired by the spirit of community and cooperation that characterizes the Israeli moshav (In contrast to the communal ownership of land in the kibbutz model, the moshav allows for private ownership of land).
Under Tevel’s model, all major decisions affecting the farm are made collectively, e.g., the specific location of the farm, the allocation of the land, choosing which crop to grow, and defining the group’s norms. Although decisions are made collectively, the land is split into individual plots for which each member is responsible and from which he/she realizes the profits individually.
Tevel’s collective farming model seeks to leverage existing resources in the community—land, tools, and human capital—to target poverty at the local level. Tevel first began implementing its collective farming model in marginalized rural communities in Nepal in 2007. It observed that by focusing on food insecurity and poverty at the local level, collective farming could help rural villagers increase their food supply and deter them from migrating to city slums, where they might lose their community support network and become vulnerable to exploitation.
According to Tevel’s initiative, in each of the villages, farmers decide upon a tract of land that will serve as the site of the collective farm, where each farmer is then allotted a plot of land. Collective farming thus provides farmers with additional land for new income-generating activities, resulting in supplemental income that will be a boon to their livelihoods. In addition, in the Tevel approach, the creation of a demonstration farm introduces farmers to new crops and allows them to learn organic methods to expand their yields. Crop yields are also increased through the implementation of a collective irrigation scheme on the farm. Cooperation and coordination among farmer group members growing the same crop ensure higher total output than if farmers were to grow the crop individually. By staggering their crop rotations and diversifying their crop profile, farmers ensure yield stabilization and year-round production, in stark contrast to the seasonal yield most small-scale farmers have to rely on. Taken as a whole, these measures not only boost economic productivity, but also enhance resiliency and reinforce food security, thereby mitigating risks such as those imposed by climate change.
Collective farming may also be an important means of mitigating land fragmentation, which, due to population growth, is leaving small-scale farmers with shrinking land availability per capita and deteriorating food security. A further economic benefit is that once farmers join, the collective has greater bargaining power in negotiating with seed suppliers to bring down fertilizer and seed costs, which are significant financial impediments to small-scale farmers across Zambia and sub-Saharan Africa.
In the early stages of the project, after Tevel and I formed the groups in each village and introduced collective farming, the farmers codified the group’s norms, set up village banking, began to hold agriculture training sessions, and initiated the process of selecting the site for the farm. Through this, I was also able to observe other distinct benefits of collective farming in the villages, and in particular, its social benefits: collaboration on a group-level, the strengthening of ties among group and community members, many of whom had not worked and collaborated with one another before, and the inclusion of all members’ voices, including women, youth, and relatively poorer farmers.
Social ties were also strengthened due to the participatory approach, as it enabled each of the villages to assert their priorities and determine how the collective farm would best serve their interests. In Chanyanya’s Demu A+B village, for example, farmers expressed early on in the group formation stage a desire that profits be divided among all members equally, rather than according to the income generated by each farmer’s individual plot, reflecting their distinct concept of land management, which favors the sharing of tools and resources at the group’s disposal. In Kawama, a fishing village, due to the scarcity of land, farmers wanted to focus primarily on raising chickens rather than on growing crops.
Once the farm is established, it can serve as a vehicle for creating and expanding market linkages—another critical factor in increasing smallholders’ incomes and improving their livelihoods. Market access and linkages are a profound challenge for Zambia’s small-scale farmers, indeed for small-scale farmers worldwide. Due to a multitude of factors, including the cost of transport, poor or absent infrastructure, lack of economies of scale, and limited knowledge of market demands and conditions, small-scale farmers, characterized by subsistence farming and low value-added activities, are often locked out of more lucrative regional markets and export value chains.
An additional and particularly onerous structural constraint on Zambia’s small-scale farmers’ access to markets is the middleman. In Lusaka’s Soweto market, and in markets across Zambia, the middlemen, also known as cadres, are farmers’ only interlocutors at the market and the sole intermediaries between farmers and customers. The cadres determine the price paid to farmers for their crops, and will squeeze farmers in order to maximize their own profits as much as possible.
My research at Tevel focused on three approaches that Chanyanya’s farmers might take to create new market linkages and address some of the structural challenges they face, such as the middleman.
The first approach considers directly linking buyers and sellers to new markets, while facilitating market-based price transparency by equipping farmers with access to technology platforms, such as price boards, and price information on mobile phones. In this way, farmers are able to bypass the middleman and see price quotes not only at the market where they are physically located, but also in various markets throughout the region, thus making an informed decision about where to sell.
A second approach that seeks to mitigate the middleman’s outsized influence is to register farmers as a group for a stall at the market, since all sellers with stands at markets must be licensed and registered with the municipal government. Thus, if the collective farm can register as a group to sell at one of the markets, it will be able to both bypass the middlemen and sell its crops at its own price.
Third, Chanyanya’s small-scale farmers might consider new partnerships and/or additional venues beyond the traditional markets, such as lodges in the nearby town of Kafue, or churches that allow farmers to congregate on designated days to sell their produce. Smallholders can also look to partner with intermediaries that are aiming to redefine the traditional farmer-offtaker (producer-purchaser) relationship by linking small-scale farmers to large retailers, namely supermarket chains, a market from which small-scale farmers are typically shut out. While these supermarket chains traditionally contract with a single large commercial supplier for their fruits and vegetables, new opportunities for suppliers and small-scale farmers have emerged in recent years. On the one hand, traditional suppliers have not been able to meet market demands; on the other, some larger retailers are looking to promote more locally grown produce as Zambian consumers are becoming increasingly interested in traditional vegetables.
While Chanyanya’s small-scale farmers face formidable roadblocks to their economic development, collective farming and opportunities for new market linkages give them the possibility of enhancing their individual livelihoods and collective wellbeing.
I will never forget my experience in Zambia. I was proud to join an organization that in the face of these challenges, did not aim for “shortcuts”, but rather deep and lasting change. I was also proud to see a self-consciously Jewish organization help support struggling Zambian farmers and to be a small part of that effort. My experience in Zambia and the lessons in activating underserved communities resonate with me to this day. Above all, they have reinforced my commitment to continue the critical work of building community governance structures and mechanisms for underserved populations.
What I have learned can be applied both at home and abroad, and I hope I have the good fortune to help in that process.
Ido Shargal interned with Tevel B’Tzedek in Zambia in 2019-2020. An alumnus of the Jewish Activism Summer School of the University of Potsdam (Germany), he has previously worked for the mayor’s office and in other public service capacities in New York City.