Giving power to African farmers

Walk-behind two wheel tractors could play a key role in improving food security and reducing rural poverty in Africa.

While farmers in the rest of the world have seen the power available to them increase dramatically over the past decades, it has stagnated, and often declined, for most African farmers. Indeed, the numbers of tractors and draught animals on the continent have been on the decline, making hard back-breaking manual work a main feature of African agriculture.

“The burden of agriculture is mainly placed on women” says Dr Frédéric Baudron, CIMMYT agronomist. “All this hard manual work also makes agriculture unattractive to the youth”.

A female farmer using two-wheel tractor fitted with a Chinese-designed conservation agriculture planter. Photo credit CIMMYT

An innovative project funded by the AIFSC, managed by ACIAR and led by CIMMYT is bringing to Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe the technologies that transformed the Bangladeshi agriculture: cheap, easy to operate, easy to maintain two-wheel tractors. Although these small tractors are not powerful enough to plough, they can be fitted with seeders adapted to plant directly in an unploughed field. This practice – known as “conservation agriculture” - saves time and fuel and protects the soil from erosion. In addition, two-wheel tractors are very versatile: they can be fitted to a trailer and used for transport of inputs and produce, they can also be used as a stationary source of power and be fitted to a variety of ancillary equipment including water pumps, wheat threshers and maize shellers.

A two-wheel tractor fitted with an Australian-designed conservation agriculture planter. Photo credit CIMMYT

The project will improve farm productivity by increasing the area one farm can cultivate, and by allowing critical operations to be performed on time. It will reduce the cost of production, and therefore increase profitability of farming. It will release family labour from field activities to other more rewarding and income-generating activities. It will also create employment, for example for fuel supply and the repair of the tractors.

But the project is of course not about providing a tractor to each farming family in the targeted areas. Inspired by Bangladesh, where only one out of every 30 users owns a tractor, the project will stimulate the creation of custom hiring services provided by rural entrepreneurs. For the impact of the project to be sustained, agribusinesses will also be encouraged to participate actively, and invest time and resources in the promotion of the machines, in training and in accessing credit facilities. In fact, the project is much more about developing commercial models to deliver tractor services to smallholder farmers than it is about merely testing and demonstrating the machines.

The project was launched on the 25th of March in Arusha, Tanzania and will spend the next four years demonstrating the critical role small mechanisation can play in improving farm productivity, freeing women from back breaking manual labor and creating rural employment.

A private service provider in North Tanzania. Photo credit CIMMYT

By Project Leader Dr Frédéric Baudron, CIMMYT