Newspaper Contribution

Crop farming on communal land: maximising production or minimising risk?


22 Aug 2018

A fascinating thing about most livestock in communal areas is that they are not used for production, contrary to what western society expects (see the essay published in this column on 13 June). What about crops? What rules do crop farmers follow in communal areas?

Agronomists generally assume that farmers seek to maximise production, which only works if the value of production exceeds the costs. The greater the value of the produce, the more can be spent or invested in growing the crop. Farmers can work hard, invest in machinery, improved seeds, fertilisers, and expensive labour all in the knowledge that the benefits of doing so will be repaid.

Environments where farmers can be confident that production values will exceed costs are those which have access to markets and fairly stable prices, where weather conditions vary little and/or predictably, soils are fertile, and where the costs of inputs are bearable. This is where farming can be a business, and one that provides a regular decent income.

Those conditions are rare in Namibia, however. In most areas the soils are poor, lacking nutrients, organic matter, and capacity to hold much water. Climatic conditions are also harsh, due to combinations of high evaporation rates, irregular and often low rainfall, and sporadic scorching heat. Even the hardiest crops often struggle in these conditions. Pests may also decimate crops, and most markets are small and some distance from farmers.

It goes without saying then, that Namibian crop farmers can’t be confident of producing good harvests, a point reinforced by small-holder farmers in Namibia having the lowest yields of their staple pearl millet in Africa! Often Namibian farmers can’t be sure of having any harvest! Crop failures may happen in one season, and even the next.

Under these circumstances, only one strategy makes sense: prudence. Translated into economic language, this means minimising losses and avoiding risk. It also means that surpluses are to be stored and used to supply staple nutrition for as long as possible. Surplus harvests are therefore seldom sold, given the possibility that there may be nothing to reap next season.

This kind of farming is best described as a low input – low output system. Expert ‘non-farmers’ often deplore these low inputs, noting that dry-land farming is shabby, lacking in effort. It’s not serious, as we often say in Namibia. We judge that farmers could work harder, and increase production if their skills and inputs were better. In other words, the problem is with the farmers.

Not so! Households in parts of Angola have two farming systems (similar twin strategies might be found on a smaller scale along the Okavango, Zambezi and Kwando Rivers and Olushandja Dam in Namibia). One is on dryland fields and works in just the same way as low input – low output farming in Namibia. The staples are pearl millet, maize, sorghum and manioc, all crops that can be stored over many months.

However, the very same farmers in the same households also grow crops in wet, peaty soils along small streams and seepages. The fields are called nacas on which a variety of vegetables (onions, potatoes, carrots, garlic, peppers, tomatoes, lettuce et cetera), green maize and sugar cane are the main crops. All are durable and most of each day’s harvest is sold immediately in nearby markets to produce regular, daily cash incomes. Very little from the nacas is eaten at home. Farmers are in their fields every day, working seriously as they plough, plant and weed, control soil moisture by adjusting drainage channels and harvest whatever is ripe that day. This is impressive high input – high-output farming.

So the same farmers employ quite different strategies: one risky, producing modest, erratic returns; the other more dependable delivering high value products that generate immediate cash returns (which, incidentally and obviously, can be used to buy and supplement food security). Production incentives are significant and predictable for one strategy, much less so for the other; and inputs and outputs vary accordingly.

Such differences in inputs and outputs – and in costs and returns – ought to be evaluated when we make judgements about the potential for small-holder farming in Namibia. One way of doing so is to start to probe these three possibilities: would a farm system be benefit most by improving the expertise of farmers, or by increasing inputs, or by boosting incentives?

By: John Mendelsohn, published on 27 July 2018 in the Market Watch of the Namibian Sun, Allgemeine Zeitung and Republikein