How two corncobs upended Zimbabwe’s foreign aid model

A few years ago, on a quiet summer morning, my friend Ben Frith and I were paddling our red kayaks on a lake in southern Virginia, discussing a radical idea: how to break Africa’s picture of drought, poor harvests, and dependence on food aid. Frith’s relatives once owned a successful commercial mango and citrus farm in Zimbabwe, but it was confiscated by the Mugabe government in the early 2000s, along with thousands of others. Hundreds of their workers have lost their jobs and returned to subsistence farming, although their farm has been idle for the last twenty years.

“What about looking at the Amish way of farming?” Ben asked. As Executive Director of the Mike Campbell Foundation of Zimbabwe (MCF), a non-profit organization that helps indigenous smallholder farmers improve their crops, he has always thought of out-of-the-box solutions to Zimbabwe’s frequent economic turmoil.

My paddle sank into the water as I considered Ben’s provocative question. It was like a stone thrown into a lake, throwing long ripples. Amish farmers are largely independent of social and communication networks and do not need electricity, commercial seeds, fertilizer or fuel to run their successful farms. African farmers find themselves in strikingly similar situations, but struggling to cope with droughts and frequent shortages of agricultural inputs.

Because Zimbabwe has nationalized farmland, it is not possible to use the land as collateral for a loan. Due to the collapse of the agricultural services sector after the failed land reform in the 2000s, he often cannot buy seeds and fertilizer even when he has money. Tractors, irrigation systems and other capital equipment are even more inaccessible to these farmers. There are frequent power and fuel outages, and the currency quickly depreciates. In 2022 3.8 million Zimbabweans needed food assistance from outside organizations.

To solve these problems, the outside world has rushed to the aid of Zimbabwe and other developing countries, year after year, unerringly. On September 21, 2022, President Biden addressed 77th session of the United Nations Assembly and announced more than $2.9 billion in new US assistance to address “global food security.” This is in addition to the $6.8 billion already allocated this year. The White house fact sheet Reasons for this year’s 42 percent growth include “the pandemic, the deepening climate crisis, rising energy prices, protracted conflicts… and the disruption of global supply chains (which have led to a sharp rise in global food prices”).

Ben decided to work on his own answers. Later that summer, 2014, he was greeted by a group of normally introverted Amish farmers in Pennsylvania. Their encounters taught Ben three key things that enable the Amish to lead a sustainable and independent lifestyle for their families and community. These lessons seem to apply to many places in Africa.

First, chemical fertilizers are typically the feedstock that commercial farms rely on from various international companies, and they are oil-based, meaning they are highly susceptible to market fluctuations in oil prices. On the other hand, most Amish farms produce fertilizer from compost and manure obtained from the livestock on their farm.

Second, Amish farms use livestock for draft power, not tractors that rely on the world’s diesel supply. As a result, the energy requirement for a given amount of crop is significantly reduced compared to the conventional model. Thus, the draft power provides not only fertilizer, but also significant protection against volatile energy prices. For low-income families at this fragile stage of economic development, this serves as a form of insurance, since private insurance is not available.

Third, and most importantly, the Amish farms Ben visited do not use hybrid or GMO seed varieties. which are distributed throughout Zimbabwe (as well as the US). These hybrid and GMO seeds are incapable of reproducing, forcing farmers to return every year to buy more like perennial flowers. Open-pollinated Amish seeds can be eaten and some saved for future production. This means that the direct cost of seed for the following year is zero.

After his visit, Ben took two ears of corn in his luggage on the plane to Zimbabwe, a gift from the Pennsylvania Amish. He then invited a small group of farming families to experiment with how well free-pollinated corn did on African soil. The harvest was successful, and in later years he worked with a Mexican research institute to develop an open-pollinated variety that would be best suited to tropical climates. Each year, the number of participating open pollinated corn families grew from hundreds to thousands.

In 2021, over 12,000 Zimbabwean families received a package of these open-pollinated corn seeds to start the journey of independence from international donor organizations. It’s a system based on sustainability, local knowledge and field training from the Mike Campbell Foundation, combined with another great non-profit, Foundations for Farming, that maximizes agricultural yields. In addition, it draws on a savvy understanding of how to recycle age-old solutions that are a unique combination of African and Amish knowledge. These successes harness individual energy and pride in a volatile market and government environment, using unorthodox methods that suit the hand being dealt with. It may not be a silver bullet for tackling food insecurity in Africa, but it shows that tackling complex problems can start with something as simple as two ears of corn, rather than costly approaches that lead to lifelong dependency on others. countries.

Craig J. Richardson

Craig J. Richardson is the founding director of the Center for the Study of Economic Mobility at Winston-Salem State University. He was also an AIER Visiting Fellow from 2005 to 2012.

He received a bachelor’s degree in economics from Kenyon College and a Ph.D. in economics from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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