Innovation of the Week: Improving the Harvest, From the Soil to the Market

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Farmers in the Uluguru Mountains in Tanzania are fighting a losing battle against increasingly degraded land. Repeated plantings are quickly depleting the nutrients in the soil, leaving it nearly barren and vulnerable to erosion. Meanwhile, downstream, the water is dark with sediment, unfit for drinking and expensive to treat. “Downstream, people are complaining about the quality of water,” says Lopa Dosteus, program manager for CARE International’s Equitable Payment for Watershed Management (EPWM) program. “And upstream, the farmers are struggling to grow enough food while their soil washes away.”

CARE encourages farmers to plant trees as crops to help sequester carbon in the soil and restore nutrients. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

In response to the growing concerns voiced by those living both up and downstream, CARE International, an organization fighting poverty and hunger around the world, is partnering with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the International Institute for Environmental Development (IIED), to improve farming practices and create financial incentives to take better care of the soil. “The objective,” says Lopa, “is to see if we can help farmers manage natural resources while, at the same time, increase their income.”

EPWM encourages, and works closely with, smallholder farmers to use various farming techniques that help to restore—and hold in place—the soil. “We encourage these farmers—who are all farming on small pieces of land—to build terraces to limit soil runoff and erosion,” says Lopa. “We also encourage them to plant trees as crops and to plant trees in the areas of their land that are otherwise going unused—this helps sequester carbon in the soil and restores much needed nutrients.” EPWM also provides supplies and support, such as seeds and crop maintenance training, and encourages farmers to leave sections of their land alone to long year-long, or even two-year long, periods in order to give the soil a chance to regenerate on its own.

Once the harvest is improved, EPWM works to make sure that farmers have a place to sell the surplus. Most farmers in the region do not have relationships with sellers at local markets. Instead, farmers take their produce to market dealers who purchase the rice, maize, beans, groundnuts, tomatoes, cabbages, and bananas at the lowest rate possible in order to turn around and sell them to local businesses at marked up prices. “We support farmers throughout the process to go out and identify the market for themselves,” says Lopa. “They collect information and meet with interested businesses. Then they don’t need the dealers anymore.”

While transportation of crops to the market is a problem, especially during the rainy season when mountain roads almost entirely inaccessible even by foot, Lopa says that the farmers participating in the project, motivated by their improved harvest and increased incomes, are working together to fight for government assistance and improved infrastructure. “Farmers are seeing that this is increasing their production and their incomes and its motivating them,” says Lopa. “They are happy that the area is being well conserved and they are feeling like they have access to more things. We are helping them shout together and be heard by the government so that their already improved access to the market can be improved even more.”

“Farmers are seeing that they can do this on the small level,” continues Lopa. “And it’s making them think and act bigger. Now they are improving things all on their own.”

To read more about innovations that increase harvests, mitigate environmental degradation, create access to markets and  improve livelihoods, see: Aid Groups, Farmers Collaborate to Re-Green Sahel, Re-greening” the Sahel Through Farmer-Managed Natural Regeneration, Improving Farmer Livelihoods and Wildlife Conservation, Protecting Wildlife While Improving Food Security, Health, and Livelihoods, Helping Conserve Wildlife–and Agriculture–in Mozambique, Bringing Inputs to Farmers, ECOVA MALI: Building Home Grown Knowledge, New Frontier Farmers and Processor Group: Reviving Farmland and Improving Livelihoods, The Abooman Women’s Group: Working together to Improve Livelihoods, It’s All About the Process and Turning the Catch of the Day into Improved Livelihoods.

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