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Executive summary

Rural livelihoods in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa are under considerable stress. Economies and the political environment are experiencing a period of significant transformation, and poverty is endemic. Agriculture remains at the core of rural livelihoods and farm power (from human, draught animal and tractor sources) is a crucial input in the agricultural production process. Factors that reduce the availability of farm power compromise the ability to cultivate sufficient land and have long been recognized as a source of poverty in the region. This is the challenge facing many parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

Many of the gains made in mechanizing tillage practices were reversed in the closing decades of the twentieth century. At the very time when many communities have been reverting to tilling the soil by hand, the impact of the HIV/AIDS epidemic has also begun to take its toll on the agricultural workforce. An understanding of the interaction between farm power and livelihood outcomes is central to enhancing smallholder livelihoods.

This report presents the findings from a study of farm power and its role in smallholder livelihoods undertaken by the Agricultural and Food Engineering Technologies Service, FAO. Studies were conducted in 14 communities in seven countries (Ghana, Ethiopia, Malawi, Nigeria, Uganda, United Republic of Tanzania, and Zambia) that were broadly representative of the main farming systems in the region, covering the maize mixed system (the dominant food production system in east and southern Africa), and the mixed cereal - root and tree crop systems (typical of west Africa). The study concentrated on the power inputs used for primary tillage; in many farming systems in the region, the use of draught animals and tractors is confined almost exclusively to primary tillage and all other operations rely on hand power. The livelihoods methodology was used to conduct a detailed analysis of the use of farm power at community and household levels.

Developments in farm-power systems

A feature of farm power in sub-Saharan Africa in the twentieth century was the dominant and persistent use of hand power for primary tillage. In the early 1900s, nearly all of the study sites relied on humans as their sole source of farm power, with the exception of sites in Ethiopia and Zambia where draught animals were already an integral part of the farming system. During the century, draught animals and tractors were introduced in many communities, closely linked to initiatives to accelerate cash-crop production and increase the area under cultivation. In some instances, governments promoted tractor use by building on earlier initiatives that had promoted draught animal power (DAP). In other communities, the private sector was the prime mover in offering tractor-hire services. In this period, agricultural production was generally profitable, households were usually food secure, and farmers earned enough to buy farm implements and improve their standard of living.

However, the majority of the study communities were unable to sustain the use of their new sources of farm power. Structural adjustment left gaps in support for the smallholder sector, with the reduction or withdrawal of agricultural input subsidies and credit, disruption of produce markets, closure of government tractor-hire services, and weakened veterinary services. The situation was often compounded by a lack of basic infrastructure to support mechanized technologies. This resulted in expensive repairs, poor maintenance and repair facilities, and difficulties in obtaining spare parts. Simultaneously, the stock of draught animals was decimated in many communities by disease, drought, distress sales and theft. Thus, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, humans and draught animals remain as the main sources of farm power, using a limited range of tools and implements. It is in this context that the study of the contribution of farm power to smallholder livelihoods has been conducted.

Livelihoods analysis of farm-power systems at community level

Three farm-power systems have been identified for grouping communities according to the relative significance of humans, draught animals and tractors as power sources for primary tillage. This classification provides the basis for the livelihoods analysis presented in this report. The systems are:

There is a sharp contrast between the poverty and general depression associated with the predominantly hoe systems of eastern and southern Africa, where DAP was once more important, and the hoe communities in west Africa, which are quite vibrant and optimistic in outlook. In the former, the loss of cattle undermines the livelihood strategies for the whole community. Hoe cultivation has become commonplace, and households are no longer able to meet their basic needs from their own cash and in-kind resources. Communities are extremely vulnerable and struggle to survive external shocks, such as the drought of late 2002. The gravity of the situation is exacerbated in communities where the labour base is also under pressure as a consequence of schooling, migration, ill health or death (particularly HIV/AIDS).

In the west African communities, there have been fewer opportunities for mechanization owing to the root and tree crops grown, and hand power is an integral part of the farming system even among richer households. Nevertheless, the loss of tractor-hire services has had a significant impact on agricultural activities but this effect has been tempered by substituting hired labour for tractors. The sustainability of this response is dependent on the continued availability of hired labour at affordable prices. In most of the hoe-cultivation communities, the capacity to cultivate land by whatever means (rather than access to land) is a significant constraint on production.

The DAP system has long characterized farming in much of eastern and southern Africa. Households with access to DAP generally cultivate larger areas than hoe cultivators, realize greater yields, improve household food security, and produce a marketable surplus. However, the ability to reap the full benefits of using DAP for cultivating a larger area is only achievable where there is an abundance of labour, especially for weeding. DAP is increasingly being perceived and promoted by governments and donors as a more sustainable farm-power option than tractor-based systems. However, its application is curtailed by: tsetse fly; poor soils and steep slopes where deeper tillage may contribute to soil erosion; small plots; shortage of fodder; and a lack of specialist skills and supporting infrastructure.

Tractor owners represent the commercial face of farming, using their strong asset-based wealth to purchase inputs such as improved seeds, fertilizer and pesticides. They pay more attention to cash-crop production and act as innovators. Their wealth and role as employers enable them to provide a social net for others in the community. The benefits of using tractors for primary tillage are broadly similar to those reaped when using DAP although the scale of operation is significantly increased. Similarly, they are dependent on the availability of labour for subsequent operations and the availability of land for increasing the area under cultivation. To date, neither appears to have acted as a constraint on production. Indeed, the opportunity to earn cash or food through hiring out their labour and land is an essential survival strategy for many hoe cultivators.

Under conditions of low farm profitability, the outlook for extensive tractor use must be marginal. Tractor owners find it difficult to maintain tractors in an operational state. Demand for hire services is falling in many communities where farmers are unable to afford the full economic cost of ploughing or transporting. In some communities, owners are not replacing their tractors while, in others, former owners have sold their tractors and reverted to DAP.

Role of farm power in smallholder livelihoods

The household asset base lies at the heart of the farm-power system and is a major determinant of livelihood outcomes. Household composition and group membership determine the labour available for farm work. The education, skills and off-farm employment experiences of the household head are often associated with specific power sources. For example, tractor owners tend to have access to non-farm income or remittances, and most have at least secondary education complemented by formal employment experience outside the local community. Savings, remittances and access to credit determine a household’s ability to purchase and maintain tools, draught animals, tractors and implements, and hire farm-power services. Social assets (for example, reciprocal labour groups) play a vital role in enabling poorer households to address their farm-power constraints.

Households using farm-power technologies other than a hoe gain considerable advantages in terms of area cultivated, crop diversity, yields, levels of drudgery, opportunities to redeploy family labour, and household food security. While hoe households typically cultivate 1 - 2 ha per year, DAP hirers cultivate 2 ha, households owning DAP cultivate 3 - 4 ha, tractor hirers cultivate about 8 ha, and households owning tractors cultivate more than 20 ha. Households relying on family labour for all their farming needs survive at the margin of subsistence. Households headed by women tend to be overrepresented among this group, partly as a result of the loss of assets typically associated with widowhood.

There is a natural ceiling of DAP ownership or tractor hire beyond which ordinary smallholders are unable or unwilling to pass. Tractor ownership is generally unattainable from farmers’ own resources and, even where they have the financial capacity, they usually prefer to diversify into non-farm activities in order to spread their livelihood risks.

Role of government and the private sector

Governments traditionally played a pivotal role in introducing new sources of farm power to communities through providing information, developing the skills of operators, subsidizing inputs and credit, supporting veterinary services, and operating tractor-hire schemes. These activities were usually linked to the promotion of cash crops and much of this support was withdrawn during the process of structural adjustment. Recent support for farm power, specifically DAP, has been in parallel with initiatives to promote sustainable farming practices, such as reduced tillage and conservation agriculture.

While government has often acted as the catalyst, the ability of the private sector to follow through these initiatives is essential for their sustainable use. This is in terms of both private purchases of DAP and tractors by individuals and groups, and also the service sector. Without a skilled and well-equipped supporting infrastructure, existing DAP and tractor owners are extremely vulnerable to the withdrawal of government support. Similarly, the absence of an enabling policy environment curtails initiatives by would-be adopters, particularly given the weak state of agricultural profitability.

The impact of HIV/AIDS and other diseases on human-power resources

Humans remain the fundamental source of power in all farm-power systems in sub-Saharan Africa. On average, one-third of households in a community rely entirely on labour for primary tillage but this figure can be as high as 70 percent. Moreover, the ability to reap the benefits of mechanization depends on the availability of labour for all other operations.

However, the availability and productivity of the agricultural workforce in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa is under severe stress. In particular, HIV/AIDS will continue to have a devastating impact on agriculture. All five study countries in eastern and southern Africa are expected to lose 10 - 20 percent of their agricultural workforce to HIV/AIDS by 2020. In the absence of the widespread adoption of alternative cropping systems and practices, improved access to farm power for primary tillage and subsequent cropping activities (in particular, weeding) will be vital to overcoming constraints on the agricultural workforce.

Outlook for farm-power systems in the study communities

In the absence of a concerted effort by government, NGOs and the donor community to address some of the vulnerabilities of the farm-power systems, it is likely that communities where the farm-power base has been damaged (for example, former DAP communities in Ethiopia, Malawi and Zambia) will face a continuing state of collapse. The recovery of the DAP base is not technically feasible in Kokate Marachere (Ethiopia) because of the population pressure on land. In Malawi and Zambia, it is very likely that livelihoods in the mixed hand-power - DAP communities will deteriorate further as AIDS takes its toll on the agricultural workforce.

The extent to which the other communities are able to maintain their existing farm-power base and possibly achieve further mechanization beyond primary tillage will depend on the state of their economies and supporting infrastructure, the profitability of farming, and the buoyancy of the rural non-farm economy. Opportunities for agricultural growth may exist in countries where per capita incomes are reasonably high and growing (for example, Ghana and Uganda), there is effective demand for agricultural produce from a sizeable urban population (Nigeria), and an effective supporting infrastructure (United Republic of Tanzania). However, farmers need security (such as land tenure and good governance), the confidence to invest in agriculture, and the means to do so. The process of farm-power mechanization could act as a catalyst if it reduces costs and improves returns to investment in agriculture. This may lead to a more commercially-oriented agriculture sector that is more competitive on international markets. For households entirely reliant on their own labour, it is difficult to move beyond subsistence agriculture in arable crop-production systems. These farmers need alternative enterprises that are suited to their labour resources, or opportunities for redeployment in the non-farm sector.


Four recommendation domains have been identified to improve the contribution of farm power to smallholder livelihoods. They represent only one aspect of an integrated response that may be implemented over different time periods. In the immediate and short term, priority is placed on protecting livelihoods through reducing the vulnerability and ensuring the survival of households most at risk from losing their farm-power assets. In the medium to longer term, the profitability of agriculture is vital if farm-power mechanization is to contribute to enhancing livelihoods. Although the recommendations stem from a livelihoods analysis of 14 communities, they are considered to have a wider resonance. The study sites covered six of the principal farming systems in the region and the conditions encountered are typical of those in much of sub-Saharan Africa.

The first priority is to enable the most vulnerable households (headed by widows and orphans) to survive in the short term by addressing their most pressing time and energy constraints, including household tasks, with immediate solutions: supporting labour brigades to maintain crop production in the seasons during severe sickness and following bereavement; and providing vouchers or grants to households to hire farm-power services and to buy technologies to ease their workloads.

The next priority is to ensure that the existing farm-power asset base remains intact and is not depleted during times of crisis. These recommendations are of most relevance to households that have already experienced a shock that places their asset base at risk, and are also relevant for households at risk from falling into this group. Activities include: prolonging the active and productive life of all household members, particularly people living with HIV/AIDS, through good nutrition, hygiene and basic health care, and promoting access to anti-retroviral drug treatment; developing skills in livestock husbandry, veterinary care and use of draught animals; reducing the threat of further losses to the asset base by providing access to short-term credit for household needs to avoid distress sales, encouraging communities to examine norms and practices which place livelihoods in jeopardy, supporting paralegals and encouraging succession planning; establishing a functioning infrastructure to ensure tools and equipment are maintained in working order; and strengthening local safety nets to enable households to overcome farm-power constraints through reciprocal arrangements, including mutual insurance schemes for oxen owners.

Once the asset base is secure, the next step is to maximize the potential of existing power sources by managing the power requirements of the farming system, and extending the range of uses of existing power sources. Activities include: spreading the labour peaks by growing crops with different seasons, rearing livestock, or engaging in different livelihood activities; spreading or reducing the demand for power inputs through adopting conservation agriculture; using labour-saving inputs, such as herbicides, or growing low labour-input crops; maximizing the value of labour input through the intensive cultivation of high-value crops; improving the quality, range and availability of hand tools; using single animals and non-traditional animals for draught power; extending the use of conventional power sources to secondary-tillage operations, post-harvest operations and transport; and participating in farm-power reciprocal arrangements with others in the community.

A longer-term activity is to support households and communities as they adopt new sources of farm power. Where the state of the economy and the profitability of farming are conducive, households may switch to draught animals or motorized power for primary tillage, either through hiring or owning them. They may also mechanize other operations, such as small-scale irrigation, crop harvesting, food processing and value-adding activities.

An integral part of all four recommendation domains is the need to strengthen farmers’ livelihood asset base. Farmers need to be informed, educated and skilled and financially empowered to purchase, repair and maintain farm-power resources. Full attention should be given to ensure that the specific farm-power constraints of women, orphans and the poor are addressed. To underpin these initiatives at the household level, farmers require a supporting infrastructure capable of delivering inputs and services in a timely and efficient manner, and an enabling policy environment.

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