Leaving Unfinished Business in African Villages

How the Work of Some NGOs Ruin it For Others.

Tanzania 2013

By Jennifer James

October 05, 2013

Also published at Medium

Farmer Training in Magulilwa Village in Iringa District, Tanzania

Jennifer James

Today I visited a One Acre Fund farmer training meeting in Magulilwa village in Iringa District in Tanzania. You might of heard of the One Acre Fund from Roger Thurow’s groundbreaking book, The Last Hunger Season. In fact, I personally learned about the One Acre Fund from his book, and I readily admit I was quite excited today to see their work firsthand in a village setting after intently reading the stories of subsistence farmers in Kenya where the One Acre Fund started its work with those who own smallholder farms in east Africa.

This afternoon I spent the greater half of a beautiful morning and afternoon with members who benefit from the training and microfinance loans provided by One Acre Fund. As someone who has sat in countless meetings with NGOs and their beneficiaries in developing countries you can instantly get a vibe of a room — always! I got a really positive vibe from the group of maize farmers who are a part of One Acre Fund’s Magulilwa village operations.

At the meeting’s outset, the members were laid back, but knew the importance of the farming education and training at hand. They were laughing and joked with one another, but when the time came to learn, they listened at rapt attention. They have a month (give or take a week or two) to begin tilling the soil and planting for yet another maize harvest and have no time to waste. I got a sense that the farmers are undoubtedly excited about their group and One Acre Fund because after one year most members doubled their maize yield. That number is not simply arbitrary. Member testimonies coupled with randomized research and evaluation from One Acre Fund prove the numbers are accurate.

That is what prompted me to ask the members of the group after their meeting ended why more farmers in the village aren’t members of the One Acre Fund. Who doesn’t like to double their crop yield in a year and earn more money? There are only 280 active farmers in Magulilwa who are members of the One Acre Fund out of 5,000 total farmers in the village.

What is the hard sell?

One member of the One Acre Fund, Juma Gama, said through translation, “They don’t think deeply. They just see it as something that can’t help them. They have low education. “

But, what really made me think and prompted this piece is what Earnest Kasike, one of the group elders said through a translator, “Many people don’t like to join because some NGOs came and took their money and went away.”

The work of previous NGOs or the lack thereof makes it undoubtedly harder for well-intentioned, seasoned NGOs with a community strategy and largely positive track record to gain a foothold in some villages and convince its members they won’t be taken advantage of. It isn’t beyond the realm of belief, however, that people no matter if they live in the Chicago suburbs or the village center of Magulilwa would be slow to try something new and risk losing money. That is wholly understandable. The sad truth, though, is if all of these farmers had previous positive interactions with NGOs more would be apt to try new farming techniques to improve their yields instead of automatically dismissing them.

This is certainly not to say that there are NGOs intent to take advantage of poor subsistence farmers. Perhaps projects didn’t work no matter how well-intentioned they were. Or, that projects were abandoned because the results never came or the funding dried up. Simply hearing what Kasike said made me realize how important the role of NGOs are to communities in developing countries. They no longer have to simply work to make sustainable changes in people’s lives and gather end results data, they also have to ensure that if operations end, beneficiaries aren’t on the losing end of the deal.

Jennifer James is founder of Mom Bloggers for Social Good and an IRP new media fellow to Tanzania.

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