Sunday, April 14, 2013

Africa: On the ground - #6 Mozambique...  

This post will finish my dilatory reporting of what I discovered on my trip to Africa. The final stop was the working farm at Ruace, MZ (not on any map I could find) somewhere westish of Gurue.

(The dotted line is how we might have driven there - some uncertainty on the route.)

Here, unlike the farm in TZ, were crops actually underway. More than 3000 acres of soybeans had been planted and were in the pod-filling stage (2/28). Slightly alarming to me, the combine for the farm was still on the ocean somewhere. I found out after I got home, it had arrived (3/27) in Maputo (over 1200 miles to the south). The platform head was in container in Duban, SA - even father from the farm.

This is the land before clearing.

While I find this worrisome, it could be the upcoming dry season means you can just leave the beans standing for weeks after they ripen with few worries. (For example, in SA, the farmer told me he field dries corn to 12.5%).  I hope so.

This farm is in an area much more densely settled then TZ - at least with humans. Surrounded by subsistence farms that is the way of life for ~85% of Mozambicans, they employ a relatively (by our standards) large number of people at ReidoAgro.

In addition, as I talked about on the show, the farm has an active and successful "extension" program to help select local farmers boost their productivity by sharing equipment (4-row planter), advice, some tillage, harvesting (if the combine arrives) and a sales outlet. That humanitarian aspect of the business plan is the most attractive part of the whole enterprise IMHO.

(The free clinic below.)

Certainly the plight of the locals is compelling. We heard stories from the resident Peace Corps volunteer, Sarah Fairchild, of efforts to do minimal family planning to prevent babies from being born while mothers are still nursing a sibling, as it usually threatens the life of the older child and mother due to simple lack of nutrition. This year the previous rains meant the people were is pretty good shape food-wise, but we were just entering the "time of hunger" (just before sweet-corn stage) when  supplies are lowest.

I must admit as well to a certain uneasiness with plans at ReidoAgro for irrigation when the largest health threat to the local population is lack of clean water. It's not their job, of course, but the juxtaposition of the two situations is certainly morally unsettling.

Fuel is hauled from Gurue (about 50 awful miles away) in a ~300 gallon plastic tank almost daily. This ad hoc arrangement is one of the many obstacles to efficient operations. Working capital is limited, which also constrains possible solutions.

My impression of the farm is perhaps all frontier efforts are this challenging, but the number of clearly urgent problems (like the combine) is deeply concerning. Acquisition of land is one thing - making it produce income is another.

I am also beginning to understand why Chinese officials have been in no hurry to modernize their farms. What would they do with the hundreds of millions of small farmers who would undoubtedly be replaced by more efficient large operations? While ReidoAgro is not moving small farmers out wholesale, like a neighboring Brazilian operation, the farm will not employ as many as it displaces, I think. Even with the boost to the local economy, the bulk of the profits will flow back to outside investors. The change in local lives is unclear.

I don't have any better idea about how to develop agriculture in incredibly poor countries, but I am beginning to believe it must be done simultaneously, if not after, industrial development offers an escape from subsistence farming. Otherwise it despite the best intentions simply deepens the plight of the rural poor, although likely with some improved infrastructure (roads, etc.)

Modern agriculture is moving away from labor to technology everywhere. Expecting it to lift masses of rural poor may be unrealistic, without an enormous expansion of the extension farmer program for which funding is problematic.

In MZ, the exploitation of mineral and energy resources could at least add a government revenues, but recent history suggests much of that will be embezzled and wasted, with the remainder supporting a permanent welfare class. Again, I've got nothing to offer instead, but the Resource Curse is real, I think.

Efforts like Aslan Global may provide an example of a better way to develop agriculture in the poorest parts of the world. It may also provide some clear data on what doesn't work particularly well. Both are valuable contributions.

1 comment:

Rick Pace said...


Thanks for your interesting notes on the trip to Africa.

I think there are a number of economic models becoming feasible for agriculture in developing countries linking new ecological knowledge with sustainable energy perpsectives.


Rick Pace
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