I spent this past November in Eastern Uganda with our partner Jewish Response Uganda (JRU). JRU was founded with the support of World Jewish Relief in 2017 to create sustainable livelihoods for local Jewish community members through agriculture, helping them to break out of the cycle of poverty. A big chunk of my visit was dedicated to visiting one green pepper field after another, together with JRU’s staff agronomist, and reminding farmers to take much better care of their capricious crops including: proper weeding, spraying, and applying the correct amount of fertiliser at the right time. During these visits, farmers would always promise to do what they were being advised, but then more often than not they would struggle to maintain the commitment levels needed to continue to change their agricultural practices.
I began to look into why this is the case. It is important to remember that most farmers in Africa are self-employed, a stark contrast to the UK where only 15.3% of the total workforce are self-employed. Here, the vast majority prefer to be employed in a ‘regular’ job. This is despite us living in an enabling business environment with easy access to all kinds of information, trainings, mentors and supporting tools and software to aid self-employment. Even with these structures and opportunities available, most of us prefer the security of a regular pay-check, a financial department that maintains the company’s balance sheet, and a sales department looking for new customers.
Whilst the pandemic has led many of us to work from home, mastering self-discipline and organisation, we are still supported by our organisations and environment. We have access to fast internet, visit Google for any information we might need, have work deadlines, catch-up calls with our managers and teammates, Zoom and Skype, electronic diaries, automatic reminders, emails, alarms and so on. Now consider our Ugandan farmers who have to manage their working lives without any of these supporting structures. There is nobody standing over their shoulder telling them when to show up for work, what is expected of them and what will happen if they do not perform well. Moreover, they have extremely limited access to information. These individuals must possess superhuman self-drive and discipline.
To succeed, the farmers we work with require the approach of an entrepreneur, driven by their passion, desire to succeed, clear vision of their goals and specific business plans to reach them. They must make and stick to plans even when they feel totally discouraged. These, often illiterate, farmers have to develop their own systems of accountability to stay on track.
Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo in their book 'Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty' point out that although poverty is often associated with dependency, the poor bear more responsibility for their quality of life than the rich, who coast along enjoying chlorinated water, with a regular salary paid directly into their bank account, perhaps with contributions to their pension, tax and healthcare automatically deducted. People in the ‘developed’ world are surrounded by ‘nudges’, that prompt certain behaviour, whether they are mandated to immunise their children or rewarded from insurance companies for joining the gym.
Kentaro Toyama, author of 'Greek Heresy', tells of how he used to ask his audiences of university students and faculty, corporate and NGO employees how they would choose to spend an unexpected bonus of $20,000. Between travel and tourism, a personal assistant for six months, and the latest electronic gadgets, most opted for travel and gadgets over a personal assistant. He explained that if our sole goal in life was to increase our income, then paying a personal assistant would be the most effective option as it would free our time to focus on productive work. But obviously this is not the case, and neither is it for poor people. They too have other desires, such as for entertainment, and are often more interested in fulfilling these than maximising their incomes to meet their so-called needs.
As a person with very patchy success in my quest for physical perfection or for building great financial security, and selective will power, I do believe in the vital importance of support structures. Human beings need nudges in order to make the right decisions. My experience has taught me that it would be unproductive to adopt a position of virtuous self-righteousness, asking useless questions such as "Why on earth can't the farmers just do what the agronomist has advised them to?" (although I am guilty of this from time to time). Thurgood Marshall famously noted than "None of us got where we are solely by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. We got here because somebody – a parent, a teacher, an Ivy League crony or a few nuns – bent down and helped us pick up our boots".
It is not our role to question the people we are working with "Why don’t you manage your time better?" or "Just streamline this process" as the process of translating such vague suggestions into practical step-by-step processes is not always obvious. Just getting from A to B in the countryside is a challenge. So it is our job to help the project’s participants add structure to their farming practices so that they can plan and become more productive. We need to help them break necessary farming actions into clear tasks that are more realistically achievable given all the challenges they are faced with.
Our partner now has in place simple strategies such as making and keeping a schedule and to-do list, which make a real difference. Crop calendars (what to expect at what stage), crop manuals (what are the signs of crops not developing properly) and weekly activity plans can help remove the angst of constant decision-making. At least for their first growing season participants need to have step-by-step instructions to help them internalise the idea that their crops need daily care. Regular follow-up visits and calls by the project’s staff, reward systems for record keeping and business achievements also keep motivation levels up.
And of course, selecting the right crop, one which takes a relatively short time to grow and which can increase their income sevenfold or more, is essential. When farmers can make a clear connection between their hard work and results, and when they are properly rewarded for their efforts and commitment, they turn into real entrepreneurs. And then, they provide jobs for others.
Ekaterina in Eastern Uganda with JRU staff members.