Five days ago, I was standing outside a mud hut in Uganda with Charlie Russell talking about seed rates.
We were travelling around East Africa looking at some of the projects supported by Farm Africa, a charity that helps to educate subsistence farmers.
It is humbling to see the lack of opportunity that most African farmers start with in life. Since coming home, it’s been impossible to view my own challenges with the same seriousness. I keep thinking that, but for the grace of God, I could have been born there and not here. I once thought that we all made our own luck in life but I realise that this is quite a parochial view.
Like most farmers, Charlie and I are problem-solvers at heart (he’s currently FW’s Farmer of the Year) so we kept coming back to the same question: “Why is East Africa struggling to feed itself?”
It’s not because they have poor soil. Most of the stuff we saw was rich, deep loam that compared favourably with the silts in Lincolnshire that farmers are paying £50,000/h to buy. They certainly contained more organic matter.
It’s not simply a lack of water. There is a decent quantity of rainfall, over a metre a year in most areas that we visited.
It’s not because the farmers are unenthusiastic or incapable of learning. Nearly everyone that we met was brimming with energy and hungry for knowledge.
In many ways, East Africa has great advantages. The climate is consistent, there is plenty of sunlight, the airport and shipping links are good, the population is mostly made up of young, educated people, the wages are low, the workforce is willing and the governments are largely stable and supportive. In fact, where international businesses have set up enterprises in Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia in the last 20 years, notably in cut flowers and fresh vegetables, they have been hugely progressive and profitable. So why is this not the same for small-scale and subsistence farmers?
It strikes me that you and I have been a part of the problem. Protectionist systems like the CAP and trade tariffs in the USA have massively disrupted food markets in the developing world. The price of stability in our markets was volatility in theirs. Did we prevent African farmers from building their capabilities by crashing their markets?
It also seems that, for our own amusement, Western farmers have added layers of technical complexity and costs to modern agriculture that make it too expensive for African farmers to now join in the fun.
I will be writing about the trip at greater length once I have reflected on it properly. The trip was certainly a positive experience; the Farm Africa projects were bringing enormous benefits and the farmers that we met were highly likeable and their hospitality and gratitude were overwhelming. The cost of educating them was relatively low – but the value, in terms of health and productivity, was massive.
There is plenty of cynicism among UK farmers about the challenges in Africa, but it is misplaced. Charlie and I have returned sharing the view that we should show more solidarity to our African counterparts. By a twist of birthright, they have been treated harshly by the same system that rewards us so well.
Supporting Farm Africa is a very effective way to demonstrate appreciation and gratitude for our relative good fortune.
Matthew Naylor farms 162ha (400 acres) of Lincolnshire silt in partnership with his father, Nev. Cropping includes potatoes, vegetables, cut flowers and flowering bulbs. Matthew is a Nuffield scholar.
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