Lessons for increasing productivity and incomes


In a number of countries around the world, efforts are being made to better the living conditions of rural communities. New soil management techniques, improvements in the utilization and conservation of water resources, community-managed seed supply systems and other agricultural innovations offer lessons to be learned about enhancing agricultural productivity and increasing rural income.

The Committee on World Food Security (CFS), a policy forum for member countries of FAO and the United Nations, will look at selected case studies from six countries when it meets at FAO headquarters in Rome from 28 May to 1 June 2001. The hope is that successful experiences in improving food security and eradicating poverty can be replicated or adapted elsewhere.

The case studies under review -- from Bangladesh, Brazil, Burkina Faso, India, Thailand and Zambia -- describe community-based actions to improve agricultural productivity. "The emphasis of these initiatives is on sustainable approaches that can lead to long-term improvement in food security and income at both local and national levels" says Barbara Huddleston, Chief of FAO's Food Security and Agricultural Projects Analysis Service. "The active participation of local communities is key."

Raising incomes of the rural and urban poor in Bangladesh

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A farmer in Bangladesh brings his milk to a "Milk Vita" collection site.
Bangladesh/G. Diana

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Established in the mid-1970s with technical and financial assistance from FAO, the Bangladesh Milk Producers' Co-operative Union, or "Milk Vita" as it is commonly known, began with the modest goal of teaching milk production technologies and organizational skills to 4 300 very poor, often landless, households in remote rural areas. The project has since grown into a successful commercial dairy enterprise, collecting milk from 40 000 farmers organized in 390 village co-operatives and distributing it to all the major cities in the country.

Since Milk Vita's inception, average milk deliveries per member have quadrupled and regular earnings have increased tenfold to Taka 32.5 a day (US$0.65), improving the food security, nutrition and income of rural families. The project has also generated employment and income opportunities for a number of the urban poor. They distribute milk using locally fabricated "milkshaws" -- traditional rickshaws fitted with insulated boxes -- which has also reduced distribution costs and improved milk quality by cutting delivery times.

A "green" approach to promoting food security in Brazil

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Tomatoes are planted in spontaneous vegetation in Santa Catarina, Brazil, part of the "conservation agriculture" approach.

In the state of Santa Catarina in southern Brazil, the need for firewood, timber, pasturage and food forced small farmers to cut extensive areas of forests. The use of ploughs and harrows led to further soil degradation, resulting in reduced infiltration of water in the soil and increased runoff and erosion. Destructive floods in 1983 and 1984 spurred a drive to find solutions.

In response, the state government initiated a programme in 1991 to rejuvenate the productive capacity of the soils, control pollution in rural areas and increase productivity and farmers' income. The project focused on "conservation agriculture", characterized by minimal (or no) tillage and other techniques that minimize the environmental impact of agriculture, such as planning crop sequences to minimize build-up of pests. The practices were introduced through a participatory extension system, involving farmers, extension agents and researchers.

The conservation agriculture approach improved yields by 20 to 50 percent in just a few years and resulted in less year-to-year variability. With the reduction of heavy preparatory farm work, labour costs declined 30 percent. Input costs also fell, particularly for machinery, energy and plant nutrients. Labour savings allowed farmers to diversify into livestock production, cultivate higher-value crops and expand into agro-processing. The result was higher incomes and better food security for small-scale farmers. (Click here for more information about the project in Santa Catarina, Brazil.)

Improving water management in Burkina Faso

To view a QuickTime movie of treadle pumps in action in Burkina Faso, click on the photo.

To help small-scale farmers in Burkina Faso intensify food production, FAO's Special Programme for Food Security (SPFS) has focused on better water management, including water conservation, improved irrigation methods and the introduction of locally made treadle pumps, which can reach water up to seven metres deep. (Click here to read more about the use of treadle pumps in Africa.) The programme also introduced better practices for rice cultivation, horticulture, apiculture, agroforestry and livestock production.

By the end of 2000, 39 sites were in operation, involving around 6 800 small-scale farmers -- about 25 percent of them women. The new water management technologies resulted in substantial increases in rice yields -- irrigated rice increased by 38 percent, lowland rice by 53 percent -- and reduced production costs. Since the programme began in 1995, earnings from irrigated rice production have increased from 91 000 to 200 000 FCFA per hectare, and from 58 000 to 143 000 FCFA per hectare for lowland rice.

Optimizing land and water use in India

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An Indian woman harvests rice.
India/19460/G. Bizzarri

In Karaiyanala in central India, the Government, working through local village committees, initiated a holistic approach to watershed management aimed at optimizing the use of land and water resources, preventing soil erosion and improving water availability, mainly through the conservation of rainwater. The programme also introduced improved technologies and practices in conservation farming, forestry, aquaculture and animal husbandry.

As a result, nearly 900 hectares of degraded land was made fit for cultivation. Water supply also rose significantly, leading to a substantial increase in irrigated area from 11 percent to 79 percent of cultivated land, and doubled cropping intensity increased yield by tenfold. One major benefit of the project was a substantial increase in household wealth: over seven years, farmers' incomes increased by more than 600 percent, while those of the landless went up ninefold. The increase in incomes and employment opportunities stemmed the migration of the poor to urban areas. The programme also reduced the sizeable burden on women, who previously spent long hours fetching water, fodder and firewood.

Putting ability first in Thailand

To watch a QuickTime video clip on the preparation of sawdust bags where the mushrooms grow, click on the photo.

An FAO-sponsored project in Thailand has shown that farmers with disabilities can be active and self-sufficient, providing food for their families and communities. The project, initiated in 1998, provided technical assistance to the Department of Public Welfare to develop a training course in mushroom production for disabled people. The main objective was to enable rural disabled people to reach economic self-reliance by creating employment and income-generating opportunities.

The trainees include men and women aged 20 to 35 years old, with disabilities ranging from visual and hearing impairments to amputated limbs. About 70 percent of the project's first group of trainees have taken up mushroom production. Mushroom production provides an estimated 30 percent of total household income for the families of the disabled. (Click here to read more about the mushroom project and other initiatives aimed to help the rural disabled.)

Drought-resistant seeds help farmers in Zambia

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In Zambia, a farmer stands in a plot of a new maize variety.
Zambia/19235/P. Lowrey

The high costs of developing new crop varieties and delays in their adoption are major concerns in Zambia, along with lack of access by poor farmers in remote areas. In the early 1990s, these problems were exacerbated by a structural adjustment process that ended the subsidies for most crops, as well as three serious droughts and a trend towards shorter and more erratic rains, especially in the south.

To address farmers' needs, the NGO CARE initiated a community-based seed multiplication and distribution system in two drought-prone districts. First, seeds were "loaned" to farmers -- they had to pay back the same quantity of seed after harvest. Households were encouraged to establish seed groups to meet the rapid increase in demand. These groups were then federated into village management committees, which distributed seeds and, after harvest, collected and repaid the loans. The committees were trained in group management, bookkeeping, crop management, seed handling and storage.

The project has increased seed supplies at low cost, expanded food availability and diversity and empowered rural communities by encouraging community members to participate in project management and by enhancing their ability to engage in development activities.

25 May 2001 

Listen to an audio clip of John Ogwang, National Coordinator of the FAO Special Programme for Food Security at the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries in Entebbe, Uganda. He makes sure that rudimentary irrigation practices are progressively replaced by modern systems (1min40sec). In Realaudio (208 Kb), in mp3 (788 Kb)

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