Friday, March 23, 2007

out of lusaka and into something more comfortable

“Good Effort! Good Effort!” It was 6:30 in on a Sunday morning. The sun had just found its place on the horizon of Malama area in Southern province and its heat had yet to arrive to beat down our bodies. I was enjoying this morning bicycle ride behind Freeman, the local community livestock worker who was doubling his niece Shonta. His words of encouragement wafted through the air and arrived at my ears as we made our way along the unpaved roads avoiding the mud puddles left over from the rains the day before and fighting through tall grass which at times, concealed the way.

I was into my first week on the job, and this was my third morning in this rural village. I enjoyed leaving the bustle of Lusaka and there’s lots to share about this capital city that has surprisingly a strong western flavour and less chaos than I had expected. But I’m getting a sense of curiosity from you cats back home and I feel that first I should get down to business to answer the million dollar question that has been coming my way. No not ‘is it hot there?’ (which it is by the way) but WHAT AM I DOING HERE?

As with many things in development, the answer isn’t that clear…yet. My focus won’t be firm until sometime in April. Instead, for my first month here, I’ve been given the wonderful opportunity to visit a few field offices to better understand PROFIT operations around the country. During this time, I’m also hoping to better understand rural livelihoods better. This visit to Choma and my stay in Malama area was my first exposure to the bigger PROFIT picture. And so, armed with a list of known unknowns and even more unknown unknowns, I was excited to be entering into my classroom of development learning.

As quick background, EWB volunteers are partnered with existing local organizations; our thinking is that there are some wonderful work happening on the ground so how can we add value to these existing initiatives. In my case, I’m partnered with PROFIT – Production, Finance and Technology. This is a 5 year USAID funded program that is aimed at developing a competitive private sector in Zambia; specifically those industries that have an impact on a large number of small holder farmers as this can contribute to wider poverty reduction.

The importance of agriculture for developing countries like Zambia cannot be underestimated. Approximately 80% of Zambians livelihoods depend on agriculture and 80% of these are classified as small holder farmers. Extreme poverty is most prevalent among this group. In a country of 11 M people, 5 million small holder farmers are classified as poor, and 3.5 M classified as extremely poor (UNDP Zambia Economic policies for growth, employment and poverty reduction, 2006) And so, supporting agriculture can have a massive impact on poverty here in Zambia (and is also why EWB focuses in on organizations that work in this area.

Why private sector? Take a few minutes to think about your daily needs and your daily activities for meeting those needs. Let’s take food for example; you can go to the store to buy it. Or, if you like to garden, then you can go to the local hardware store to purchase the equipment and other inputs that you need. If your local store doesn’t have this, then you can get into your car and drive to another community/store, or you can jump on your bike and ride along the paved road to the next outlet, and the chain goes on. Our lives in Canada are so inextricably linked to markets and our access to these markets are generally so open that we don’t even think about how we’re able to meet our needs through the market systems.

Here in Zambia, the situation is quite different; the private sector is much less developed, and of the markets that are available, access to them by rural communities is limited at best. Decades of heavy government subsidies for agricultural inputs (seeds, fertilizers etc) were followed by a rapid privatization in early 1990s. Where governments once provided required inputs for agriculture, the rate of privatization did not provide enough time for alternative supplies to develop through private sector offerings. Today, noticeably absent is a developed private sector in Zambia, or more specifically, particularly one that reaches out into the rural communities. Rural farmers have limited access to markets where they can gain access to products that can improve their output (fertilizers, herbicides, appropriate technology etc.), or markets where they can sell their crops. I thought I had understood this concept of lack of access to markets prior to arriving but it was hammered home during hours of driving on unpaved, pot hole filled roads that had been recently pummeled by the rainy season – and we had the luxury of a 4x4 vehicle.

Cows, not just for tipping.

Having grown up in rural southwestern Ontario, I was used to cattle. I remember spring days when the smell of cattle manure freshly spread on nearby fields marked the beginning of farming season and I can still hear the lazy moooooos of cows as you road by them on your bicycle. I also heard that if you got the timing right, you could push over cows when they were sleeping.

As I’m here on a professional basis, I had to curb my interest in seeing f this rumour was indeed true. Instead, it was more important to understand what cattle actually mean to rural livelihoods. Here in southern province (and for most of the country) cattle play an important role; provides draft power for farming, milk for added nutrition, mode of transportation (ox drawn carts), or maybe most significantly, cattle ownership carries prestige, is a sign of wealth and effectively, it is a farmer’s bank.

After a good year of harvest or if farmers have extra money on their hands, that money will likely go into the purchase a head of cattle. And conversely, if they require money, (ex. for school fees, if a child is sick), they will then withdraw from their bank by selling off a head of cattle. An average price for a head of cattle is about 1 – 1.2 M kwacha. (about 300$CDN)

One of the vulnerabilities faced by Zambian farmers is the animal’s susceptibility to disease. In the late 80s/early 90’s there was a massive outbreak of corridor disease that wiped out an estimated ¾ of cattle in Monze district of the southern province. Not only did this have direct impact on financial security, it also impacted agricultural production as there was significant dependency on draft power for farming. And today, in the absence of government support, animal health continues to be poor and disease continues to be a major risk factor.

And so, the dipping service that I was riding to with Freeman was part of the Herd Health Plan (HHP) initiative of PROFIT. The end goal of HHP is to improve animal health by linking farmers with private vets. PROFITs role in this is multiple. First, they organize farmers into suitable groups and raise their awareness on the importance of preventative measures for animal health. A common analogy used by these facilitators is this: “ Your animals are your bank. If you don’t protect your animals, then it is like having a bank that does not have a lock on the door, or one where the windows are all broken; thieves can easily come in and steal your money. In your case, the disease is the thief, and so why won’t you protect against them?’

Farmers meeting at Chief of Monze palace in Malama area.

Community meeting with Malama Community and Chief of Monze - in the hat and suit
(the man's got style!)

The only condition for participating in the scheme is a willingness to pay – indicating a valuation of service and introducing market system that can promote longer term sustainability of the service and adoption. PROFIT then links farmers up with private vets willing to deliver the required services. Freeman is the community livestock worker who lives in the community and links the farmer and the vet. At the end of the day, the aim is for this farmer/community livestock worker/vet relationship to be strong enough that PROFIT will be able to move out and let this market sustain itself.

So that’s just one example of the work that PROFIT is doing. They’re also working in other industries and focus on system wide changes that need to be in place for growth potential in these markets to be realized and sustained. I mentioned, I’m still not sure where exactly I’ll be focusing but I’m pretty excited that it will fit somewhere into this larger picture.

Anyway, I’ve put in a lot of information and may have also missed out on critical aspects. If you have questions, then by all means post a comment or send me an email and I’d be happy to expand more on this.

Hope all is well. Selani Bwino ( stay well)