For my third week of rotations for MDP fieldwork in the Mbola Millennium Village, I I shadowed Agriculture and Environment Facilitator, Francis Missana, as he conducted trainings in post harvest practices and encouraged farmers to pay back the input subsidy loans given out by the project in the 2008/2009 season. I was impressed that the trainings emphasized environmental concerns and intrigued by the implications of tobacco growing in the region.
With agriculture as the base of economic development in the Mbola MVP cluster understanding how farmers are growing their food helps us to understand not only how we might increase income generation, but also how to protect the environment, ensure food security and in the case of Mbola, conserve the Miombo Woodlands. One of the key MVP interventions is giving an input subsidy loan; in our cluster the project offers three types of fertilizers (DAP, Urea, and CAN) along with improved maize and sunflower seeds. By giving out these inputs for free the first year, the project planned to improve yields so significantly that farmers would have the capital to invest in the inputs themselves for the subsequent growing seasons. The 2008/ 2009 season was the first year that farmers were expected to pay back in full, in cash. Less the 1% of farmers did so, thinking that like the first year- it should be free, meaning that for this season only 103 farmers received the inputs, and food yields have been quite low throughout the cluster.
This summer the project staff is campaigning for loan payback. With tobacco prices reaching record highs (between 3,000Tsh and 4,000Tsh/ Kg), both the Agriculture and Business teams are encouraging farmers to use their profits to pay back the loan. If they do so, next season they will be eligible receive subsidized inputs for their food crops. Trying to balance food crops with tobacco planting has been a challenge for the team. Tanzania is known for quality tobacco with low use of chemical herbicides and pesticides. The industry is expanding in the Tabora region and tobacco curing houses are ubiquitous structures across the cluster. The companies provide their own input subsidy loans for fertilizer, seeds, tobacco curing houses, and even maize and tree seedlings- the difference with payback is that the companies are also the end consumer. Loans given by the company are deducted from the sales back to the company at the end of the season. Although MVP will never have quite the same business model, the tobacco model shows that a loan scheme can work within the cluster. As I observed the meeting between Francis and the Mabama Village Agriculture Committee, the committee made a strong pledge that they would pay back the loan this summer.
Repayment rates will have a big impact on next year’s food security, although if tobacco prices remain high it still might be a challenge to increase food production. Increased tobacco cultivation would also increase pressure on the woodlands as the process of drying the leaves is heavily reliant on firewood from the Miombo. The tobacco companies are trying to address the issue by offering a credit line for planting tree seedlings and improved curing houses, known as ‘rocket houses,’ that retain heat better. The labor and environmental costs of tobacco growth may help in persuading some farmers to other crops. As Francis trained farmers to leave post harvest crop residue in the fields so they compost and advised them not to use chemical pesticides or herbicides, I was impressed with the focus on keeping production organic. The one exception to leaving crop residue was for the tobacco crop which, as Francis explained, should be burned because it attracts pests. It has been exciting to see how some environmental sustainability initiatives are incorporated into the project plan, from integrated soil fertility management to pilot tree planting initiatives at schools and dispensaries. Even with this focus, however, the team is still working out a comprehensive strategy for increasing the value of and protecting the woodlands.
As we think about how to increase community awareness of conservation, we will also be closely watching this summers loan payback rates. We could witness a real turning point for food security in Mbola not only with loan repayment but also as the project tries to increase off season production by supporting dry season vegetable gardens.