THIRTY-SIX FARMERS filled to overflowing a tiny straw-topped hut in the village of Kawomba, on the windswept plains of western Zambia. Members of three local small farmer groups, they had to come to air their views with project staff - and to tell a visitor about people's participation.
"Four years ago, a group promoter came to our village and explained the FAO People's Participation Programme [PPP] to us", said a member of Kabombwa Group. "Five of us volunteered to form a group, but without much enthusiasm. We had never worked together before and after our first effort - growing sweet potatoes - we only had half a bag to sell. So we decided to try growing rice instead. The first year we produced enough rice to make a profit. After that we began growing maize and vegetables on the land of one of our members. We started a savings account last year and asked each member to contribute $2. Now we have saved $65, which we lend out to each other".
The secretary of Zwelopili Group took up the story: "We saw how well our friends were doing - working together, getting loans and fertilizer and helping each other if one was sick. When the GP came around we asked about the project and decided to form a group. We started by growing vegetables and selling them to others in the village. With our first loan - 76 bags of fertilizer - we grew maize. It was the first time we had ever used more than a bag of fertilizer. But it was a bad year and the harvest wasn't good. Still we managed to sell two tonnes and repay most of the loan. We have asked for another loan this year and we'll work hard to pay it back".
A farmer from Lima Group spoke up. "After seeing how these two groups were able to buy things for their households - plates, dresses and cloaks - we decided to follow their example and formed our group a few months ago," he said. "We have 14 members. The group has a vegetable garden and some of us make baskets and curios to sell in Lusaka. Now we have asked the GP to get us some help so we can start up a fish farm".
Asked whether the small group approach could help other communities, the farmers responded unanimously. "We have learned to work together," said Jane Mulonda, a former group secretary. "Before each one worked in her own field alone. Now, as groups, it is easier to get loans and training, which was once very difficult, especially for women. Before no one grew vegetables here - now we do. We feel that everyone should form groups because development takes place faster than among individuals".
Jane Mulonda is now a catalyst in this development process: she and five other group members became group promoters and are busy creating new groups in their own communities.
The spirit of cooperation and initiative pervading that mud hut testifies to the progress being made in Zambia's PPP project. "No group has remained static," said Lydia Ndulu, of Zambia's extension service. "Even new groups catch up quickly due to the collective experience of the older groups. They go immediately into an intermediate phase of development."'
Assisted by project staff from the Ministry of Agriculture, the women have won a greater share of government services and achieved a measure of economic independence. "No, the men do not object," one women said. "In fact, many of them want to join our group. We let them, because they do fencing work and cycle to the district centre when we need paraffin."
The project second phase stresses training. Each district organizes one residential course a year for group leaders and as many mobile workshops as the extension system can provide. Training has had a positive impact on farming practices. "The most important thing we have learned is about agriculture," said the secretary of a group in Kaoma District, recalling the days when farmers waited until maize plants had grown before adding fertilizer to the soil. "Once we had no surplus and had to live on cassava towards the end of each season. Now we grow enough maize to see us through." The secretary took a course at Kaoma Farmers' Training Centre on crop production, saving and group management. On her return she shared what she had learnt with other members. Now the group has requested training in the extraction of groundnut oil, which they plan to produce and sell to other villagers.
Phase II has also seen stronger emphasis on savings. While credit has been instrumental in improving productivity, recurring drought and late arrival of inputs have often led to crop failures. To cover bad season, groups are now encouraged to build up their cash reserves. Banks are beyond the reach of most villages, so each group's savings are kept in a member's home and recorded in account books cyclostyled by the project staff.
Thanks to this collective system, farmers now play less than $1 for services which, using hired oxen, would cost up to $10. The idea has been taken up by other groups, two of which recently received three-year development loans for oxen and ploughs.
Similar cooperation is evident at all levels of the project. District-level coordinators have been appointed to supervise GPs directly and, at a higher level, a Provincial PPP Coordinating Committee has evolved into a Women in Development Committee overseeing all activities for women in the region.