The complexities of smallholder farming


Jemimah Njuki

Have you ever wondered what it is like to be an African smallholder farmer? The decisions you would have to make, and the complexities you would have to deal with on a day-to-day basis!

I really did not think a lot about this until I played the game ‘The African Farmer”. This online game simulates the complex decisions and uncertainties faced by small-scale farmers living in Sub-Saharan Africa.

On Labour Day with a couple of hours free time, I decide to try out the game. The game comes with a user guide that on first reading makes it sound very confusing and complicated but do not let that deter you! Once you start playing, it is a lot of fun, but I can promise you that you will make many goofs. I did!

The players are responsible for managing a household and small farm in an African village. Players must feed their household and manage the plots of land to which they have access. They can trade food, crops, inputs, land and other goods and services at the market or with other players. Players must manage labour to ensure that domestic and farming tasks are carried out and must decide whether to send children to school. They can send adults to town to look for work.

On the farm, players must choose which crops to plant, when to plant them and decide on weeding and the use of fertilizers. They must be prepared for adverse weather and be ready to respond to crop diseases and pests. Household members need balanced diets if they are to remain healthy – individuals given poor diets are more likely to become ill and may die. Chance Events (e.g. a transport breakdown interrupting market supplies) may occur at any time in the game cycle, which may disrupt plans and confound strategies. The game incorporates various elements on which players must take a position, giving a range of goals that must be balanced:

  • Agricultural – successfully manage and develop the farm.
  • Health and education – provide household members with balanced diets and ensure children are educated.
  • Social – increase social standing by diligently carrying out duties and helping neighbours.
  • Financial – increase the net worth of your household by farming or trading.

I start by selecting the household—it is a household of 2 adults (myself and husband Eric), 2 children (Pamela and Irene) and a baby (Joshua). First thing, I have to do, is go to the market, and buy the family stock of assets. This is where it starts getting tricky. You can buy hired labour, inputs, food stocks, vouchers for school fees etc but you do not have unlimited buying capacity. So I buy some hybrid maize, bean seed, manure, NPK, some hired labour and some food stocks.

Next, you allocate tasks to the household members, and once you allocate these tasks, the members become unavailable for other tasks. You can decide whether children go to school or not, whether one adult goes to work or stays on the farm. So I allocate Pamela and Irene to go to school. In addition, they can do one of the mandatory tasks, which include cooking, fetching water or firewood.

The season is split into 4, early rains, main rains, early harvest and late harvest. If I plant everything early, I will be short of labour. Decisions! Decisions! I decide to plant the maize in the early rains; I will plant the beans in the main rains. I allocate the labour for the fields, and by the time I have allocated all the labour, only Eric is available to do the cooking! Might as well! He will be cooking the whole year.

In the main rains, I plant the beans in my second field; fertilize the maize planted in the early rains and spray. I do the cooking this time and the girls are allocated the fetching water and firewood-typical! By early harvest when the maize is ready to be harvested, I have no available labour to weed the beans! Eric is spraying, I am harvesting and cooking, and the girls are fetching water and firewood.

And there are risks too. I forgot to buy a granary! If I do not have one, I will lose 25% of the harvest from post-harvest losses. I remember just in good time and click the market to buy. Unfortunately, I do not have sufficient funds to buy one .I get a message that my harvest would reduce significantly, but what to do! Labour is short during the harvest time, so I have the girls on domestic chores and Eric is cooking, again! I check the yields from the first harvest, I am doing well. I got 8.8 bags of Maize.

At the end of the late harvest, family changes-you can have more children. I sigh with relief, I did not give birth! However, there is disaster looming. I have to allocate food and for some reason, I allocate the level X diet. There are four levels with level X being the lowest. This diet is not sufficient and people on this diet can die from malnutrition. I click a button to try to change the diet. It is the advance button and I am promptly informed;

Eric Nyanya has died from malnutrition

Doreen Nyanya (that’s me) has died from malnutrition

Pamela Nyanya has died from malnutrition

Irene Nyanya has died from malnutrition

Joshua Nyanya has died from malnutrition

It’s not funny!

I however still do get the performance of the farm on the farm statistics. Despite the labour shortage, I have not done so badly.

Although my first attempt at playing the game has not gone so well, it makes me appreciate the many decisions that farmers have to make, most often without the information that they need. The constraints in access to resources and the struggle to allocate scarce resources to keep their farms and their families going. Any catastrophes of weather or pest attack can leave them in a vulnerable position.

While some of the aspects of the game have no reality in them, it still does make you appreciate the complexity of smallholder farming. I would recommend this game for everyone working to support smallholder agriculture. It will make you change your views and appreciate smallholder farmers.

The game was created by a team from the University of Sussex and Future Agricultures and can be played here . Read the user guide before you start!


2 thoughts on “The complexities of smallholder farming

  1. Wow – Jemimah! Sounds exciting! I’ll give the game a go – thanks for the heads up but I may just do as bad if not worse! Thanks for sharing! 🙂

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