Dramatic solutions to Africa’s farming woes

By Justin Cremer

November 7, 2017

In a village in Mozambique, performers act out a familiar rural scene.

Two female farmers have just finished harvesting their produce when they are approached by a trader who offers to buy up all of their cabbage at a lowball price. When the women object, he positions the deal as a generous favor.

“I’m saving you time and money,” he says, knowing full well that the women have no way of getting to the bustling market in Maputo on their own. “No one in this area is going to give you a better price. My truck is ready. I can go today and be back with your money tomorrow.”

Reluctantly, the farmers agree to sell him half of their cabbage, which the trader then sells at a tenfold markup at Maputo.

As the two women lament that they were forced to sell at a price that does not even cover what they spent on fertilizer and labor, they spot their district administrator driving by in his nice car and flag him down.

“Look what the traders are doing to us!” they wail. “You must find a way for us to get our goods directly to Maputo or to bring the buyers to us.”

The administrator vows to take action and the performers then break character. A facilitator comes in to ask the subsistence farmers and villagers in the audience about the scene and whether they have any ideas about how the women could improve their situation.

The performance is one of many put on by the Food and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN). The organization is active in 17 African countries and created the Theatre for Policy Advocacy program to empower farmers – particularly women and young people who don’t always feel comfortable speaking up due to cultural traditions that encourage deference to elders.

It is done in a comedic way to get people to laugh, but also to get the farmers to really think deeply about the challenges that face and how to get to the solutions, FANRPAN’s Sithembile Mwamakamba told the Alliance for Science.

FANRPAN s Sithembile Mwamakamba at the recent World Food Prize events. Photo: Jim Heemstra
FANRPAN s Sithembile Mwamakamba at the 2017 World Food Prize events. Photo: Jim Heemstra

Mwamakamba, a Zimbabwe native living and working in South Africa, said the program builds women s confidence by allowing them to express themselves in a non-threatening environment.

“Theater provides that platform because it’s all about portrayal and it’s not personalized so someone can speak about a character or situation that they can relate to,” she said. “The audiences have the solutions. They know exactly what needs to happen for their circumstances to change.”

The performances can do more than spur dialogue. They can also lead to new policies.

Mwamakamba recalls a play staged in Malawi about a female farmer whose in-laws took over her farmland after her husband died. The portrayal of the despondent farmer bemoaning the loss of the land she had cultivated for over 20 years, and the facilitated dialogues that followed, got the ball rolling on a process that would ultimately see a change in the country s land inheritance laws.

Theatre for Policy Advocacy is just one of the FANRPAN programs aimed at bridging the gap between farmers and policy makers. Mwamakamba said poor communication all too often prevents scientific research and agricultural advancements from reaching the farmers that would most benefit.

“We plan so well for the research but we never plan for the communication,” she said. “There s no point in doing this wonderful work and getting these wonderful results if no one knows about them and they re just stuck on a shelf somewhere.”

Communication is a really big deal.

One of her key messages is the need to get more young people engaged in agriculture. This is a pressing problem across Africa, which has the world s youngest population, with some 420 million people between the ages of 15 and 35. With young people leaving rural areas to chase jobs in the cities, and with Africa s farmers aging at a rapid pace, there is an urgent need to make agriculture an appealing and profitable career option for the next generation.

At FANRPAN, Mwamakamba was involved in a study that looked at the youth policies of 10 African countries, some of which hadn t been changed in over 50 years. She said it is essential that policymakers view Africa s youth as a vital workforce within agriculture. But perhaps even more important is the need to bolster rural communities so that more young people take up farming or related opportunities, such as transporting produce to nearby markets.

“The reason why young people move to the cities is because they are looking for opportunities; they like to make money,” Mwamakamba said. “Young people will always go for the bright lights, so we need to make the lights brighter in the villages and not just in the cities.”