Making the transition from subsistence to commercial agriculture is a giant step forward that many African farmers want to make. Rachel Kalipi, a member of the YALI Network, describes how she’s attempting to make this transition, as she, family members and neighbors pool their labor to work a 40-hectare (almost 100-acre) plot in northern Namibia.
Rachel described the crops currently cultivated.
Kalipi: We grow varieties of things during the cultivation season (six months in a year), i.e., millet, sorghum, melons, pumpkins, maize, groundnuts and beans. We also keep animals at the plot — chickens, cattle, goats, pigs and donkeys.
Question: Who does the work, and who shares in the harvest?
Kalipi: This started as a family subsistence farm and it has grown where we produce sufficient yields for [our] own consumption and a surplus we sell in the market.
The work is mainly done by the employees — three full-time employees at the plot — who stay at the plot throughout the year. During the cultivation season, additional labour is sourced from the community on a part-time and ad hoc basis. Up to 20 people work at the plot at peak periods. The harvest is split about 60 percent for consumption and 40 percent is sold in the market.
Q: What are your aspirations for the business, and how do you hope to achieve them?
Kalipi: The long-term objective is to turn the farm into a commercial business, to cultivate throughout the year and grow a huge variety of crops using innovative farming technologies. Virgin land is available where we could expand and increase our output.
The key challenges to achieving that are access to funds and the lack of necessary skills to do the transformation. I continue to seek funding from various sources, which will enable me to acquire the required equipment and seek the service of experts in agriculture to assist with transformation.
We use a basic tractor to plough the field, but we are still using traditional methods. The biggest portion of cultivation is still done manually. I am keen to learn more about tilling farming methodology as this is something that will benefit us greatly to improve our crop yield and shorten the period of soil preparation.
Namibia is a very dry country and cannot support full-year cultivation for a farm dependent on rainwater. The government has increased its investments in building dams to support agricultural projects and store water, so that has long-term potential.
In the near term, adequate rainfall is a continual problem. We frequently experience droughts whereby the country receives minimal rainfall. Timing becomes very important to ensure that the whole harvest is not lost.
Q: What can other members of the YALI Network learn from the way this agricultural enterprise has grown?
Kalipi: If there is anything I learnt from this venture, you don’t have to wait for perfect conditions to start something. My family started this project as a small subsistence farm to supplement our daily needs. We faced a big challenge to clear this piece of land — given minimum resources we had at our disposal — and turn it into a productive farming unit.
Today, we are producing enough food for the family, a surplus to sell and food to distribute to the people who help us on the farm. Our ideal is to get an irrigation system and set up greenhouses to start growing crops throughout the year.
Q: What are some of the obstacles your group contends with?
Kalipi: There are several:
- Soil degradation. We have to continually put fertilizer on the soil to increase crop yield.
- Erratic rainfall.
- Some years, our fields are attacked by outbreak of insects and birds that destroy the crops.
- Lack of modern technology and skills to transform the current farming methodology to modern and efficient methods and systems.
Rachel Kalipi says her family has worked this plot in Namibia for 25 years, though the land has lain fallow for several seasons because of inadequate rainfall. The latest improvement on the land is to enclose it with fencing to protect the crops from animals. The next improvement Rachel and the family plan is to provide some form of irrigation to a section of the land so vegetables can be raised year-round.
In a related story, a family farm operation in the U.S. state of Wisconsin employed some nontraditional methods to scale their farm into a larger commercial operation, and they shared their story with the YALI Network.