In Summer 2014, Ryan Vroegindewey used the Student Media Grant to travel to Mali, where he chronicled the relationship between rural food security and market participation through stunning photography. The Student Media Grant awards up to $5,000 to current students interested in capturing issues facing fragile and conflict-affected areas of the world through photos. Other winners have traveled to and produced photography highlighting issues in Nigeria, India, Nicaragua, Kenya, Haiti, Guatemala, Ethiopia, Perú, and other conflict-affected regions.
May 5, 2014
This summer, I will be conducting research throughout Mali to examine the relationship between rural households’ food security situation and their participation in markets.
In Mali, a farming household will usually market its agricultural products either by simply selling on open markets or to traders. However, in other cases (which are somewhat rare for the case of Mali), farmers and farmer organizations will enter into longer term contractual relationships with agribusiness such as cereal mills in order to better link themselves to modern markets. My primary research question seeks to explore how these different modes of market participation work, and what their impacts are on household food security and other outcomes at the household and community level. As food security is a complicated and multi-orbed concept, my blog posts will likely touch on related topics that contribute to and describe food security in Mali, including climate variability, supply chain and market systems, household food access, and nutrition.
To study these issues, my field research will focus on three or four rural communities in which farmers are participating in supply chains through some form of contract farming. About half of my time at each site will be spent with a random selection of such contract farmers, and the other half will be spent with households which do not participate in contract farming. I will also be collecting data from key community members and organizations and other supply chain actors in order to get a broader, system-wide understanding of the market’s role in food security.
My primary data collection tools will be photography and semi-structured interviews, and I hope to devote at least a couple blog posts to my ongoing reflections on how photography can potentially be used as a tool in the data collection, analysis, and reporting stages of agricultural economic research. As my field research evolves, I also plan to post photographs from the field in addition to preliminary observations and findings.
In addition to thanking the Howard G. Buffet Foundation and Texas A&M for their support and the opportunity to conduct this summer’s research, I would also like to gratefully acknowledge the additional support provided by the Syngenta Foundation; the Agricultural, Food, and Resource Economics Department at Michigan State University, and the African Studies Center at Michigan State University.
June 2, 2014
Mali Farming Household Profile #1: Millet and Sorghum in Segou
I have been in Mali for about three weeks now, and just completed the field work for my first case study, which focuses on the agricultural livelihoods and commercial activities of millet and sorghum farmers in the central region of Segou. The small sample of farming families that I spent time with are members of a large producers’ union—Mali’s largest, actually—that provides an important packages of services to its farmer members. First, each year prior to the agricultural campaign, the union helps farmers to plan their coming year’s food needs and to project agricultural surplus. Based on this planning exercise, the union then signs a one-year contract with the farmer which provides him or her with credit for agricultural inputs. At harvest the union pays an agreed-upon purchase price to the farmer for its surplus millet and sorghum, minus input costs. Technical assistance and marketing services are also provided to farmers, and at the end of the commercial season any profits are returned to farmer members as a dividend payment. Millet and sorghum are important food security crops in Mali both because of the great latitude with which they are consumed, but also because they are among the basic crops that farmers market to meet household needs for which only cash can provide.
Below are select photos gathered from my multiple household visits, which provide a rough profile of the kind of farming households which participate in this kind of contracting partnership. According to the FEWS NET Livelihood Profiles for this zone of Mali (the west and central rain-fed millet/sorghum zone), these households’ demographic, agricultural, and economic characteristics roughly suggest that they belong in the middle wealth group categories — in either “poor” or “middle” — but neither “wealthy” nor “very poor.”
While I was not able to catch planting activities (which get started in the next few weeks), during the interviews farmers exhibited some of their tools and equipment.
Following harvest, there is a very time-consuming post-harvest process that traditionally is almost exclusively done by the female members of a household. Post harvesting activities include threshing, drying, dehulling and winnowing the grains.
Before a household considers marketing millet or sorghum, its first priority is to produce enough grains to meet the caloric needs of its members. Lowland (local) rice is a secondary cereal that is consumed. While the bulk of farmland goes to cereals production, ingredients for sauces and the occasional proteins are acquired in a variety of ways, including small plots of secondary land, market purchases, household animal-raising, game-hunting, or gathering.
Markets are an inevitable and important aspect of farming and household food security. Most households interviewed manage to market at least 100 kg of millet or sorghum per year, per one of the requirements of their membership in the producers’ union, but still rely on the market for a variety of needs.
Climactic Shocks and Other Difficulties
June 16, 2014
Mali Farming Household Profile #2: Maize in Sikasso
Mali is a vast and diverse country, and just a day’s worth of travel from the Segou to Sikasso region can bring out this kaleidoscopic reality. Although the regions are adjacent to one another, there are many important agricultural differences. Perhaps especially this time of the year: while Segou had not yet emerged from the dry season when I was there, less than a week later I found that farmers in Sikasso were already heeding the counsel of the first rains in tilling their fields. Instead of Segou’s varying shades of brown, deep greens rooted in rich red earth dominate the landscape of its southern neighbor. Most farmers in Segou focus on millet and sorghum, and would perhaps market only a handful of cash crops if they are able – usually sesame or peanuts. In stark contrast, Sikasso – the “Cote d’Ivoire” of Mali as was cited several times—offers an overwhelming variety of cereals, fruits, and other cash crops.
One likely benefit of this agricultural wealth is that households have more farm-based opportunities to participate in markets as sellers. Households cited a number of crops that they market, ranging from cereals and cotton, to bananas, shea, and garden vegetables. There’s also a wider range of cereals produced here, to include lowland rice, millet, sorghum, in addition to maize. For its part, maize appears to benefit from more diversified market demand than does millet and sorghum further north in Segou. Through my field work in Segou I could only identify one private sector buyers (aside from a two or three traders) that purchased directly from producer organizations. In contrast, several maize producer organizations are selling directly to a mill, one large producers union had commercial agents in Europe looking for buyers, and I heard of several small processors building their own maize supply chains.
Despite these comparative advantages, maize producers still have important constraints that limit their productivity and market participation. Farming households seem to still largely have a sustenance farming orientation in which they produce maize first and foremost to feed their families, and usually only market maize to either repay inputs loans, or as an afterthought to ensuring that the family cereal stocks will last the entire year. Access to inputs and equipment, an issue inextricably tied to access to credit, is also a yearly challenge, even for those in producer groups. Climactic problems do not also escape this region, as most farmers cited erratic rains as a recent agricultural shock. Additionally, despite the diversity of foods found in Sikasso, this region consistently posts some of Mali’s highest chronic malnutrition rates an issue commonly refered to as the “Sikasso Paradox.” Perhaps related, households reported serious sickness or death of family members more than households in Segou.
Below are some illustrative images focused on the production, consumption, and market activities of maize farming households that I interviewed while in Sikasso, and also some from the southern Koulikoro region which is also an important maize production zone. As with millet and sorghum, my maize research focuses on households which are involved in some type of “contract” farming model, usually taking the form of a yearly engagement (with either a trader, processor, or the producers group itself) to receive agricultural inputs on credit at the beginning of the agricultural season, and to repay these in kind at harvest. According to the assets, food sources, and income sources reported during the interviews, households are either “middle” or “better off” in terms of the FEWSNET wealth rankings for this zone. This would imply that these households are spread out among the roughly the upper 50% of the population in terms of wealth.
Given that planting was already underway in the South of Mali, I was able to spend a good bit of time with a couple farmers in their maize fields. (Please note that most of the production photos taken were actually taken in another maize region of Mali, southern Koulikoro, where I am looking at an additional inputs and market access model, initiated by a social enterprise called myAgro. Household interviews from these Koulikoro farmers is not yet completed, and so not captured in the above household summary.)
Village Storage and Consumption
Similar to farming households in Segou, families in Sikasso will process (dry, thresh, and dehusk) harvested maize before storing it in cereals granaries located within the housing compound.
Maize that is not stored is either paid as in-kind reimbursement for inputs advanced at the beginning of the season, or else marketed in small quantities. If farmers are not part of a marketing cooperative or other scheme, they are price-takers selling to collectors who act as intermediaries between village-level markets and regions traders.
July 6, 2014
Mali Farming Household Profile #3: Rice Farming in the Office du Niger
The Office du Niger (ON) zone is quite unlike any other area of Mali. Created in 1932, the ON is a public enterprise consisting of a vast network of damns and irrigation canals which direct water from the Niger river to thousands of rice fields. For families living in the ON, it almost seems as if most aspects of life are framed and formed by the production of rice. The most obvious manifestation of this is the dominant manner in which rice production, processing, and marketing occupies household calendars and economies. Even entire villages have been established as rice production “colonies,” and their geography often hugs the banks of the primary canals that irrigate fields.
Farmers in the ON can potentially benefit from a number of production and commercial factors which other Malian farmers often do not have access to, including irrigated farmland, a local government institution dedicated to supporting rice production, subsidized fertilizer, and and a relatively high density of production and marketing organizations. However, irrigated rice also has its unique challenges, which include very limited access to land (and related land conflicts), and the danger of falling into debt given relatively high production costs combined with an opportunistic local paddy and rice grain market which appears to take advantage of farmer water and credit payment cycles. Several different models exist in the ON that attempt to help producers overcome these production and marketing challenges, which I studied while in the ON in addition to spending time with rice producers.
While most of the households I interviewed appeared to fit into FEWS NET’s middle wealth category, I think that I encountered a bit more of a spread of household wealth compared to other zones, with a couple households appearing to fit into the “poor” category (with only four ha or less of cultivable land, and very limited farm equipment and livestock holdings), and a few in the “better off” category with 10 ha or more of land and motorized farm equipment. One possible reason for this broader encounter of “contract” farming households in the ON (as opposed to other production zones in Mali) is the higher use of inputs (fertilizer and improved seeds varieties), greater financial demands (for water user fees and input loans), and potentially more complicated marketing dynamics, all of which may push farmers to be more involved in a production and marketing system.
Life and Livelihoods in the ON
August 7, 2014
Twelve Photos from Fatou
This summer I was very lucky to be assisted in my Mali research by a Malian agricultural economics student named Fatou Sanogo. Fatou’s research internship was part of her capstone graduation project at Mali’s national agricultural school, l’Institut Polytechnique Rural de Formation et de Recherche Apliquee (IPR-IFRA). IPR-IFRA and Michigan State University’s Agriculture, Food, and Resource Economics program (MSU-AFRE) have a strong, ongoing partnership of agricultural research and institutional development, and this summer’s research project was an opportunity to participate in a small way in this capacity development program.
All summer Fatou provided priceless Bambara translations, helped out with logistics and planning, and contributed to the synthesis and analysis of data. Additionally, in early May Fatou was given a DSLR camera and a bit of photographic training, and was asked to also take photographs while in the field. Throughout my time in Mali, Fatou and I frequently shared and discussed photos, and had the opportunity to reflect on the roles that photography might play as a a type of data, an aid in agricultural and economic analysis, and as a tool in communications and reporting. It was usually interesting to note the different photographic opportunities that Fatou and I would find as valuable and informative — for example, I would sometimes shoot scenes that were quite normal for Fatou, while she would often take special interest in capturing objects or activities that were novel or meaningful to her as a female Malian who has grown up in urban Bamako.
Below are twelve photos that Fatou has selected on the general theme of food security, reflecting particularly in terms of the four dimensions of food security — availability, access, utilization, and stability. I’ve also included below any titles for her photographs, and her captions translated into English.
Ryan holds a Master’s from Michigan State University in Agricultural, Food and Resource Economics; he also earned a BA in History from Covenant College. Click here to check out more of Ryan’s photography!
- Student Media Grant
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