“Climate change? What’s climate change?”
Her surprise was genuine, and I understood that she had no idea how the fertilizer she requested with such passion was part of a bigger debate on the correlations between global farming systems and climate change. For women like Afi, environmental issues are dwarfed by fundamental issues like ever-impending hunger, shelter during the tropical storm season, good roads, healthcare, and adequate supplies of potable water. Electricity was a luxury that her mountain community could not yet afford.
Afi did not own a television set or cellular phone, and had no awareness of the media frenzy over global debates on food policy, global warming and the effects of climate change on agriculture. I began to see the difficulty with changing the mindset of entire communities. I needed to find a way to explain to this woman how her actions and the actions of other people affect the planet we live on. I needed to explain how her work in rural Togo was affected by my work in uptown Boston. She had brought a basket of newly harvested maize, set up a little fire by the gate, placed a piece of broken fence wire on it and began roasting corn. I figured if we could converse, then we could relate. So I struck up a conversation.
Her name was Afiavi Yibovi, and she had farmed her mother’s old plot for over 37 years now, learning to tend the mountainous land since she was about 8 years old. She had come to the LiftTogo Community Meeting in Pologou, because she heard that volunteers from America would be at the school that week. She walked 2.5km to ask for fertilizer donations for the women to use in their farms. She told me she was a city-widow. Her husband moved to the city years before in search of work, but he had never returned. She sold her maize at the nearest town on market days, making the unsold corn into ‘zogban’ – finely ground fermented cornmeal. From her meager earnings, she fed her 4 boys and sent them to the community school in Pologou.
Afi’s response to my climate change question should not have surprised me. Without formal education, political representation, or awareness of the cause-and-effect cycles around them, rural farmers are largely oblivious of tradeoffs that come with technological progress. This is particularly characteristic of Sub-Saharan Africa where the primitive (pre-industrial) methods exist side-by-side with modern, post-industrial methods built on more advanced science and technology. The rural methods of farming do not differ much from community to rural community, as many of the farmers had learned from their forebears, and farmed the land according to tradition. The introduction of modern farming methods, systems and tools has had the advantage of making more rural farmers aware of increased productivity from fertilizer programs, tractor-sharing co-ops, and crop rotation systems that bring relative prosperity.
I had a list of innovation possibilities which, backed by strong agricultural policies would move Afi’s community towards more profitable productivity. I even told her about Nigeria’s new mobile platform for rural farmers to get fertilizer and seeds through an e-wallet on their mobile phones. But our ideas paled in comparison with the immediacy of her needs. The communal financing of petrol-powered tractors; the logistics of getting access to nitrogen fertilizer; the necessity of sourcing disease-resistant seeds; the logistics of moving their produce to better-paying markets; and the need to educate rural farmers who embrace the new farming methods.
The correlation between modern living and planetary damage seemed improbable to her. I tried to explain the effect of greenhouse gases on the environment but realized that the very concept of ‘environment’ was beyond the reference and repertoire of most rural farmers here. To her, the relationship between farmers and the Earth has always been personal – and reciprocal.
When the sweat of the farmer is given to tend the earth, then the earth yields a good harvest as the farmer’s reward. This symbiotic relationship was deified in ancient African tradition, with the Earth (farmland) gaining some level of divinity, receiving sacrifices and like the sky gods, supplications for rain. It was considered an eternal contract between the earth and mankind. To then suggest that the changing seasons, and increased frequency of droughts had more to do with misuse and damage, was tantamount to saying that the earth had refused to keep its side of the bargain. Interestingly, it was counter-intuitive to tell Afi that a contract which had been in place for several generations would now cease to work for her, and even worse, for following generations.
“Why?” she had asked me.
I tried to explain how many chemicals are harmful to the earth and to humans in the longer term. I explained that we lose natural ecosystems when forestland is cleared for large-scale farming. But that in Africa, most deforestation comes from the expansion of smallholder low-yield farming like most of her community did. So, she wanted to know, was it better to have big farms that grow food for companies and not for people? It was difficult to explain how 21 – 36% of land grabs are attributable to large-scale farmers growing crops like corn and sugarcane for biofuel. But that biofuel was considered a better alternative to fossil fuels like petrol which damage the environment. I explained that when fuel is burned the fumes harm the earth, and in some parts of the world a lot of fuel is burned to keep day to day business running.
“We have treated the earth very badly.” I told her. She gave me a worried look as she turned a cob around to cook more evenly.
“But we, who?” she asked. “Me and my people, we have been good to our land ever since our ancestors came here many, many generations ago.”
I tried to explain that the earth was a very big ball of land and water, with gases in the air around it. I explained that Pologou was only a very small portion of a tiny part of the earth. Using my iPad, I showed her a 3D view of the globe. She was astounded by the scale of it all when I showed her Beijing China, New York City and then the Lome Airport on Google Earth. She looked up at me then with wide eyes and told me that it seemed that people on the other side of the big waters were not taking personal care of their land. She said it would be good for them to love the land so they could earn the farmer’s reward. She smiled sweetly and handed me a perfectly roasted corn cob.
“Ohh, you nearly scared me for a moment there,” she gasped. “I thought you were trying to say that what they have done on that side is going to kill our own land on this side.”
I had no answers to that. It was beyond the scope of my expertise, and I did not want to break the woman’s heart. So, I ate the corn. And we donated the fertilizer.
Funke Michaels is an MIT Sloan Fellow, a Harvard Mason Fellow, and co-founder of the MIT Africa Investment Forum. She also spearheads marketing and strategic communication for innovation-focused organizations across 16 markets in West, East and Central Africa. <[email protected]>
Credits: Original paper on Global Food Policy written with the guidance and support of Professor Robert Paarlberg, Harvard Kennedy School of Government. October 28, 2014.