African Farmers Anecdote

Parker Mitchell of Engineers Without Borders, a group that has shown how far you can get if you roll up your sleeves and start tackling the problems. Mitchell argued that antipoverty programs sometimes stall for want not of money or ideas, but of good implementation. He described how development specialists in southern Africa have long advised farmers to switch from corn to sorghum, a cereal native to Africa that is more resistant to both drought and floods. When Zambian farmers were reluctant to plant the crop, aid groups chalked it up to stubbornness and tried to force it on them.

Mitchell's team took the trouble to ask the farmers why they were reluctant. It turned out that sorghum had acquired a reputation as a "poor person's" crop. Ironically, the aid groups themselves were partly responsible for this perception: the cereal had become associated with their charity. (When I visited Mali just over a year ago, I noticed the same perception, and it also seemed to reflect a certain postcolonial attitude: villagers thought of maize and wheat flour as Western and therefore better.) In addition, farmers were understandably hesitant about risking their families' livelihood for an uncertain benefit. So the team took a different tack. It promoted sorghum not as a staple but as a cash crop — a way to make a little extra money on the side. Slowly farmers gained experience with the crop and began to plant more of it.

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