kevin keepper

A Call for Innovation and Collaboration

Grabbing a notebook and pen from my bag in the back seat, I asked Esi, the program manager and driver today, to please brief me on the clients from TechnoServe’s cotton program she and I were en route to visit. The Mpaka workshop, she told me, is one of the twelve workshops that TechnoServe has nationwide to train farmers on best practice methods of cotton production.

These nationwide workshops are a key part of the program strategy to revive Swaziland’s cotton industry. They provide TechnoServe advisors an opportunity to improve the capacity of farmers to succeed in growing cotton by focusing on reducing their cost of production and increasing yields per hectare, two factors over which farmers have relative control.

The goal for the Mpaka workshop was to teach farmers the basics of effective pest control to ensure that farmers were both purchasing the right pesticides to control the pests in their fields and applying pesticides in the most educated and efficient way. By focusing on this topic today, at this stage of the crop’s lifecycle, TechnoServe advisors can help farmers control a factor that can improve yields and income by as much as 50%.[i]

For background: In 1989, 16,000 cotton farmers in Swaziland’s Lowveld region produced 32,000 metric tons of seed cotton which contributed more than $14 million to the rural economy. Since then this number has fallen to the 394 metric tons produced in 2008. This isn’t because 16,000 smallholder farmers are producing little to no yield, rather it is due to a myriad of reasons including a steady transition of cotton-producing farmers into corn and other food crops.

Sadly, however, the Lowveld region is not suitable for such crops and farmers are seeing failure after failure of food crop attempts. TechnoServe has partnered with the government-run National Cotton Board to revive the cotton industry in order to secure income for the thousands of struggling smallholder farmers in this region.

A few moments into the drive and my conversation with Esi her phone rang. Esi answered and gaily chatted with the head of the cotton farmer association we were en route to see. I took the much needed break to transfer the details of the conversation to my notepad and incrementally gaze out the window (something I do to keep my motion-sickness-prone stomach at ease).

When Esi hung up the phone, she informed me that we would have to alternate our plans today. The association we were supposed to train today canceled on short notice because they learned that a prominent aid organization was handing out food in their community. The farmers in the association that were scheduled to attend the training were going to collect handouts instead and the training was to be rescheduled for another week, hopefully in the near future.

The unfortunate truth is the overcoming the logistical challenges to reschedule a meeting within the window of this critical week for pesticide application is very unlikely.

While I am pleased to know the farmers and their families were likely relieved of food needs for a week or so, I believe that this illustrates an often discussed but rarely witnessed issue facing the development community: unforeseen setbacks to sustainable programming. We often talk about sustainability in development or compose programs that aspire to facilitate sustainability, but far less often do we address or share instances of setback.

I don’t doubt that those farmers in the cotton association needed food, but I now wonder whether their crop will be as bountiful this season, their confidence not wavered, and most importantly, their income capacity not limited. If so, in three months time, rather than having the money to put food on the table and reinvest in their business, these farmers will be looking for the next wave of relief. I do acknowledge that I am jumping to a number of conclusions here, but this set of events is possible and similar challenges interfere with programs like this every day.

In reading this it may seem that I am cynical and risk averse, but on the contrary I am quite optimistic and thrive on the opportunity to address and overcome challenges. I am sharing this story now because I see a need to spur rigorous debate about ways in which practitioners can avoid development drag. BoP growth requires a functioning market and innovative solutions and I believe that we have a collective role to play in making this happen.

Each visitor and contributor to this site is already achieving much progress in strengthening the industry knowledge and practice, but I think we can do more. Continuing to deepen our collective wisdom and advance best practices is a promising way forward, and I am excited to continue this effort of insatiably searching for and delivering solutions.

[i] National Cotton Strategy – 2009 to 2014, report developed under the leadership of the Swaziland Cotton Board, with assistance from TechnoServe/Swaziland, and through support from USAID. All statistics are drawn from this report unless otherwise noted.