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Experiences of improving smallholder farmers' livelihoods

Perceptions of success and failure

Perceptions on the attributes that indicate success or failure tend to be as diverse as the backgrounds of the key informants. However, the majority of informants highlighted that for a project to be regarded as a success it had to have the following attributes:

i) a positive impact on the ground, e.g. improvement in community welfare;

ii) transformation of people's lives, i.e. improves local livelihoods;

iii) evidence of ripple effects outside the project area;

iv) improvements in people's perceptions, attitudes and self-confidence, e.g. project committee members vying for councillor's post;

v) an external organization's investment in infrastructure;

vi) provision of a lasting solution to local problems;

vii) sustainability within and outside the project area, so that local people can manage the project after donors, interventionists, etc. have withdrawn.

Based on the projects that informants cited as failures, project failure can be the result of:

i) failure to influence people's perceptions;

ii) donor-dependency, in which people wait for donors and government to provide initiatives and the means to initiate and sustain them;

iii) poor project identification, in which local communities are not involved or projects are not financially viable;

iv) lack of capacity building of local groups;

v) lack of management expertise;

vi) initiatives that are seen as unnecessary within the context of the intervention;

vii) failure to develop good interpersonal relationships among collaborating institutions or between interventionists and target communities

The donor-dependency syndrome is a vicious circle because, while a few initiatives are designed to help local communities through self-help projects, many donors and/or projects continue merely to hand out donations. Examples include boreholes and agricultural input packages that are acquired and distributed with international donor funding. Supply-led donor programmes have also resulted in projects where detailed reports or documents, rather than results on the ground, are regarded as the ultimate products or outputs. In other cases, donors withdraw prematurely because participatory approaches take longer to implement than top-down approaches.

Regardless of whether a project is perceived as a success or a failure, there are always lessons to be learned from it. More important, whatever the results, the experiences are always useful for the primary beneficiaries of a project. Thus there is always something positive about a project.

Examples of success stories

According to sources in AGRITEX, the Biotechnology Trust of Zimbabwe has made inroads within the agricultural technology system. The trust implements eight projects on mushroom production, indigenous fruits, drought-tolerant and disease-free maize production, disease-free sweet potato production, biological nitrogen fixation, livestock feed, goat and pig production, and molecular disease diagnosis. To date, the trust, together with collaborating institutions, has developed and made available to farmers numerous cultivars of several crops. In another development, the Biotechnology Trust provided farmers with veterinary kits and training in their use, thereby enabling the farmers to diagnose livestock diseases. The Farmers' Development Trust's intervention in smallholder tobacco production witnessed an increase in yields from about 500 kg to about 2 000 kg per hectare. This increase is significant, and remarkable, given that yields in areas outside the intervention communities are still about 900 kg per hectare.

In Marange, the Manicaland Development Association implemented a very successful water-harvesting project called the Nyachityu Project. This project is multi-faceted and includes natural resource conservation. In Honde Valley, the Catholic Agency for Development initiated a smallholder irrigation project, in which women practise vibrant horticulture. Another success story is an International Liaison Committee on Food Crops Production project, which established several irrigation systems in Wedza District. The project pulled out about six years ago, but irrigation projects are still running perfectly. In Gokwe South District, the Dairy Development Programme project has witnessed increased milk productivity, while maintaining costs at a minimum owing to the introduction of home-based rations that utilize crushed maize, sunflower cake and a vitamin-mineral mix. The same project won two National Dairy Farmer of the Year Awards and one runner-up between 1995 and 1998.

The ITDG/GTZ Chivi Food Security Project

The Intermediate Technology Development Group (ITDG)/German Agency for Technical Cooperation (GTZ) Chivi Food Security Project was initiated in response to localized chronic food insecurity in pockets of semi-arid areas of Zimbabwe and the need to ensure that communities are self-sufficient in food supply. The project aimed at understanding the constraints to household food security and addressing these, with the objective of enhancing food security at the grassroots level. A major finding of the initial study was the need to develop individual households' technological capacity to improve production in their very arid and very erratic environments. To achieve this, in 1991, a pilot project with an emphasis on soil and water conservation was set up in Wards 21 and 25 of Chivi District. The project area is characterized by hilly terrain, and the major income-generating activity is horticulture that is based on the local water system, which is why the project focused on soil and water conservation.

The project was implemented within the framework of participatory research and extension approaches in which farmers organized themselves into groups of 70 to 80. The groups were involved in project identification, planning and the elaboration of action plans. The objective was to empower farmers and improve the adoption of technologies. Farmers were exposed to soil and water conservation technologies from areas outside the project area, including infiltration pits and fanyajuu. The latter are inverted contour ridges that are designed to retain water on the land, as opposed to the conventional contours used in Zimbabwe, which draw water away from the field and are therefore inappropriate to semi-arid regions, where fields are normally dry because of the prevailing conditions. Another project component was the identification of indigenous soil and water conservation technologies for promotion within the project area. Farmers selected the practices that they preferred, and tried these. They met periodically to discuss the results and any problems encountered, make other observations and suggest possible solutions among themselves. Information was also shared during field days, evaluation meetings, field visits, competitions and, when funds permitted, look-and-learn tours. In the project, farmers adapted technologies and tested their own adaptations. Another interesting feature of the project is that farmers did not adopt whole technologies but bits and pieces of technologies (step-wise adoption of technologies).

The project was a success both in Chivi District itself and, in terms of ripple effects, in Chimedza and Mukaro Wards of Gutu District and various areas of Zaka District. The indicators of success include:

  • the unusually wide range of technologies that farmers in these areas have tried and adopted;

  • people's improved socio-economic conditions, e.g. some originally very poor farmers are now buying their own cattle;

  • local farmers' increased organization and demand for services;

  • the establishment of local farmer institutions as a way of making farmers' demands effective (institutional capacity building);

  • successful capacity building efforts from support institutions.

Extension agents involved in the project tend to be more professional, use participatory approaches in their work and have a different perception of extension and intervention projects. These extension agents view themselves as facilitators in the rural development process rather than providers of technical solutions. An extension worker in Gutu District was voted the National Extension Worker of the Year and was runner-up for the same award the following season. Other extension staff have already left AGRITEX and joined top NGOs, having been approached without even applying for positions.

Another indicator of success is the initiative's influence on other intervention programmes. Lessons from the pilot project were synthesized to provide guidance for other projects. For example, the Chivi project led to a review of GTZ's work on conservation tillage in Masvingo, and this became known as the Kuturaya Project. The initiative has also influenced AGRITEX's management and training of extension workers, notably in its Agricultural Services Management Programme. All the extension workers in this programme were trained along the lines of the ITDG/GTZ project, which emphasizes the use of participatory approaches. In addition to being a resounding success on the ground, the ITDG/GTZ Chivi Food Security Project also provides an excellent example for nationwide interventions because of the publicity and extensive documentation it received. Project outputs include numerous articles in international journals, books, a joint manual on participatory extension approaches, a video and pamphlets.

The project's success was based mainly on its use of participatory approaches, its addressing of a pressing livelihood need and its acknowledgement of local indigenous knowledge. The project also strengthened the ways in which communities share information, as well as strengthening support from external institutions such as AGRITEX and linking that support to local demand. The project succeeded also because it strengthened various institutions, including traditional leadership. However, as with any initiative, the approach used in the Chivi project presented some constraints, which would need to be solved before it could be used in other projects. The major constraint is the need for extension service providers to reorient their thinking so that they can appreciate their own role as facilitators and not the providers of technical solutions. Such a reorientation requires much time and many resources, and it could encounter resistance from both extension agents and farmers who are used to supply-led extension.

Examples of failures

Despite the efforts of government, international donors and NGOs, recent years have witnessed an increasing number of failed community irrigation schemes. Most such schemes were designed to enable members of local communities to produce and market horticultural produce to improve their own livelihoods. However, some schemes have ground to a halt as a result of minor technical problems that community groups could have solved. Examples include cases where pump engines broke down and were not repaired or replaced for four or five years. Model B resettlement schemes, which were designed to run as cooperatives, were failures countrywide. In these schemes, groups of farmers were allocated land and jointly managed the production from that land. However, for example, in Mutungagore-Tsamvi in Mount Darwin District, 13 out of 15 cooperatives accumulated huge debts and had to disband. Among other factors, political problems and misconceptions within the groups resulted in minimum efforts being put into joint plots, despite thriving enterprises on subdivided individual plots.

In Wedza, the African Development Fund (ADF) initiated a paprika production and marketing project. To start with, ADF carried out a pilot project in three sites and provided funds (in the form of partial loans and grants) for paprika production, while AGRITEX provided extension services. Buyers and intermediaries were the target market, in which several buyers were to buy the product based on competitive prices. Rather than providing supplementary funds to already established systems such as AGRITEX, the project hired individual consultants who were not only very expensive but also rarely seen on the project site. The hired consultants also absorbed most of the paprika product in bulk and at very low prices for resale. At AGRITEX headquarters in Harare, the project was seen as a success because of the number of farmers who took up paprika production. However, this view was not shared by local evaluations of the project, which were confirmed by the Zimbabwe Farmers' Union's assessment that the intervention had failed because, countrywide, most farmers had stopped producing paprika after failing to establish a market for the crop. A Farmers' Union representative also noted the unethical trading practices whereby farmers were paid only Z$115 of the Z$700 per kilogram realized on export markets.

The GTZ CARD Programme

According to several informants, agricultural research and extension interventions in Zimbabwe have generally failed. A typical failure cited by several informants was the Coordinated Agricultural and Rural Development (CARD) Programme, which was initiated and funded by GTZ. This programme was implemented in Gutu District, emphasized land management and concentrated on land-use planning and utilization, crop improvement, livestock development and agroforestry. Millions of dollars were spent on the programme but, when it was phased out in 1994, it seemed not to have had any impact on the ground. According to informants, there is still no evidence of the grazing schemes that were supposed to have been established.

The reasons for the project's failure include donor pressure and the use of top-down approaches. Programme identification and implementation were both based on very top-down approaches: planning was carried out in offices on the assumption that expatriate "experts" understood the local people's problems. This was partly the result of the donor-driven nature of the project. Owing to the nature and source of funding, there was an urgency to meet deadlines, long-term time frames and expected outputs within specific periods. This meant that there was no time to establish community involvement, which could have enabled them to continue with the project (thereby ensuring project sustainability) after the withdrawal of funding. In other words, the programme was affected by donor pressure and failed to involve local communities in project identification, preparation and active participation during implementation. The programme was also a victim of the "touch and vanish" modus operandi of some NGOs, whose projects tend to be characterized by very short life spans, which are not long enough to have a tangible impact on the ground. The project has since been redesigned on the basis of participatory approaches - influenced by the successes of the ITDG/GTZ Chivi Food Security Project - and relaunched as the GTZ Integrated Rural Development Project.

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