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Calorie Energy Balance: Risk Averse or Hunger & Exhasution


As discussed in other sections of this Web site, there appears to have been a Fundamental Oversight in the basic approach to agriculture development over the past 40 years. This is associated with casual observations in the mid-1970s and confirmed by averaging some of the initial farm record results, that smallholder producers appeared to delay their crop establishment for up to eight weeks with an average crop establishment of one month after the initial rains or other seasonal starting events such as an irrigation issue. The assumption was that smallholders were risk averse and waiting for more assured rainfall, etc. This was and remains mostly an assumption, supposition, or hypothesis that has become deeply entrenched in the development documentation without any real proof or verification. The result is the economic development for smallholder communities continues to emphasize only technology development through additional small plot trials and an effective extension education program to inform producers on the potential of new techniques. This is often accompanied by a credit package to assist the farmers in obtaining the recommended capital inputs such as certified seed, fertilizer, and crop protection chemicals. Also, the emphasis is usually on the importance of early planting, without ascertaining the resources needed and availability of those resources to extend the small plot to the full farm within the recommended time limits. The philosophy continues today with the Millennium Village Project and the Bill & Melinda Gates/Rockefeller Foundations efforts to bring the “Green Revolution” to Africa.

Unfortunately, this overlooks a major limitation of agronomy research and extension. Small plot research only determines the agronomic potential of the physical environment as defined by climate as determined by temperature and moisture including any irrigation water, and perhaps adjusted by soil type and whatever inputs are being evaluated or demonstrated. Agronomy research and extension normally does not ascertain the drag in extending that physical potential from small research/demonstration plots to whole farms imposed by the limited operational resources most smallholders have to manage their land. The operational resources such as labor and labor substitutes needed to manage land rarely appear to be considered by the development community. Instead it is simply assumed the farmers have or have access to the labor or other means needed to extend a research or demonstration plot results to a full farm of 1.5 ha in the timely manner needed to take full advantage of the recommended technology including those associated with value chain enterprises. Perhaps this needs some serious review.

Caloric Energy Balance

A major concern might be the “Caloric Energy Balance” between the number of calories a person is expected to exert in implementing a development program, and the number of calories the person has access to. While it is well recognized that there is major hunger among smallholder producers and their communities, and one of the objectives of poverty alleviation projects is to improve yields to reduce the hunger, rarely is hunger recognized as a potential major impediment to the development efforts. An impediment that, if not carefully considered, could easily render many poverty alleviation projects virtual “non-starters”, or severely limit the acceptance beyond a simple small plot demonstration, and well short of the entire farm as envisioned by the promoters.

For example, if an adult requires approximately 2000 kcal just for bodily maintenance loafing around the village, and if it requires an additional 220 kcal/hr of moderate but sustainable gardening exertion, then for an individual to work a full 8 hr agriculture day, the person needs access to approximately 4000 kcal. This excludes the heavy digging associated with initial land preparation which could increase the energy requirements in excess of basic metabolism to 280 kcal/hr. , but  4000 kcal. is a reasonable approximation of the total daily calories required to diligently work all day. To obtain 4000 cal a person would have to consume each day:

  • 1.1 kg Uncooked Rice (3.07 kg cooked), or
  • 1.1 kg Maize Flour (6.15 kg cooked), or
  • 4. kg Uncooked Plantain, or
  • 3.43 kg Uncooked Cassava, or
  • 5.83 kg Uncooked Sweet Potatoes, or
  • 1.1 kg Wheat Flour (3.07 kg cooked)

This volume of food is shown in the photo for each of the staple listed above. It is a substantial amount of food considering that the maximum per capita consumption of rice is in Myanmar at 200 kg/yr or 547 g/day. This will provide approximately 2000 kcal or about 50% that needed for a complete day of moderate agriculture field work. In Myanmar as in many Asian countries rice is the main staple food contributing most of the calories in the diet.

EnergyBalanceConsumerTableFor an individual to purchase the 4000 kcal listed above in various African countries will cost anywhere from US$0.30 to US$1.99 depending on the country and staple food involved (Table). (Additional Countries)

This only provides a source of calories from starchy staple foods, which are normally the cheapest foods. It does not provide all the protein, essential minerals and vitamins that are necessary for a person to be healthy enough to endure a full day of agriculture field work. These have to come from meat, fish, beans, vegetables and fruits that are normally more expensive then starchy foods.

Poverty Affordable Calories

If a person is living at the poverty level, usually defined as 1 US$/person/day, they can spend no more than US$ 0.80 on food. The other money will have to go for other essentials such as cooking fuel, grain milling, candles, used clothes, etc. In the African countries listed, where most agriculture field work is manual, only in Tanzania, with its fixed ceiling price for maize, that may actually be substantially lower the competitiveness and hinder maize production, can a development project justify expecting someone to work a full day, based solely on the calories available from maize.

If the person substitutes the additional more expensive foods to provide a more balanced diet that will provide sufficient protein, minerals and vitamins and other essential components, the individual will have to reduce the amount of calories available. This in turn will reduce the amount of work that can be expected. In a class room exercise using the complete consumer price comparisons lists from which the above data were obtained, when all foods were considered for a more complete balanced diet the total available calories was reduced to approximately 3000 cal. Subtracting the 2000 cal needed just sustaining the body’s biological activities, the calories available for field work could be 1000 or less, and thus the energy for field work would be less than four hours. Isn’t this consistent with what is often observed when visiting smallholder communities? However, it is still necessary to factor in some essential domestic drudgery associated with obtaining domestic water, perhaps getting fire wood, cooking meals, nurturing children, etc. This would be an additional drain on calories for field work. If the community members have less than one US$ per day, then available calories would be even less, and since this cannot come from subsistence calories, it has to come from work calories and reduces further the number of hours the person can work. Perhaps there is an alternative motive when farmers include a well specified lunch when employing a crew of day workers. The lunch might just as easily be called a “pit stop.”

An example of how diet could impact on agriculture field work is an interview with a smallholder in Kenya who would hire workers for a five hour work day, including lunch. When asked if anyone did a double shift and worked ten hours, the answer was no, because if they did they would not be available to work the following day.

Subsistence Supplies

While consumer prices are the most readily available data to collect for this analysis, and the US$1.00/per/day is the accepted standard definition of poverty, it is recognized that smallholder producers usually produce most of the food they consume, particularly the staple food that are the primary source of calories such as those listed in the Table. However, how much subsistence food is available is more difficult to determine and would be more variable even within a specific host country and even between individual farmers. The best estimate would be farmers in Malawi indicating they reserve some four 50 kg bags of maize for personal consumption. This would amount to some 200 kg/yr or 547 g/day. That would provide a diet of 2030 cal/day as the primary source of dietary energy. The four bags of 50 kg each per person is very consistent with the Millennium Village project with allocates 1.1 tons of maize per family of 5.7 people. This amounts to193 kg/per/yr or 529 g/day with provides 1930 cal/per/day or about 5% less than stated by the farmers which is neither significant nor substantial difference, and provides some independent confirmation of the farmers’ estimate. At this rate the subsistence stocks will be sufficient to sustain a person, but not allow them to undertake substantial field work.

Impact on Development

If a development project is promoting a new technology with an emphasis on early planting and expecting farmers to manually expand the technology from the research/demonstration plot to a full 1.5 ha farm, and they only have enough caloric energy to work four hours a day, how long will it take to complete the task? Would this not extend well past the recommended time frame for the new promoted technology, perhaps up to eight weeks? What would be the weed infestation when the basic crop establishment is completed and the farmers return full time to the initial field planted for additional mid-season management activities? How will that impact on the yield potential and prospects for the new technology to improve the limited diet the farmers afford or allow them to become more involved in value chain enterprises being promoted for their benefit? Does it render many rural poverty alleviation projects to near “non-starter” status?

If farmers including any dependents assisting them only have the caloric energy for four hours of work per day and they are seen idling around the village in the afternoon, should this be interpreted as their being lazy and available for mobilization as proposed by the Gates/Rockefeller program, or hungry and exhausted? If the latter and the fuel tanks are empty, there is no way they can be mobilized for extensive additional field work without doing them some serious physical harm. Also, if this has been the case since the beginning of the rural development effort some 40 yrs ago, then if those initial farm records were disaggregate would they show that instead of delaying cultivation, farmers were starting there crop establishment at the first opportunity when the rainfall variable can approach 100%, and continuing as fast as their available energy would allow. Thus, instead of being risk averse, smallholder farmers are and have always been mandatory risk taker, with their very survival dependent upon taking these risks? If their available diet is limiting the hours they can work each day, and this is extending the crop establishment period well into the time when potential yields, particularly for maize in Africa, may be rapidly declining, then any delay will reduce potential yields and put their very survival at risk. Given the critical need for subsistence production and amount of field work clearly visible in need of attention, what is the more realistic scenario for anyone seen idling away the afternoon in the village? Are they being risk averse or hungry & exhausted? Perhaps, any truly risk adverse smallholder most likely starved to death several decades ago.

This limited dietary energy as a drag on farm management does not account for the two or three times a year farmers suffer a bout of malaria and cannot work for a couple days, the times they get dysentery and lose another day, and increasingly the impact the HIV/AIDs epidemic casting a dark shadow over rural Africa and the available labor.

The bottom line is before implementing a rural development project, take the time to determine if the beneficiaries can afford or otherwise have access to sufficient calories and other essential diet needs to complete the daily task expected of them. If not compute the number of hours that can be expected and adjust the area over which the promoted technology can be extended within the recommended time limits. It is really not a very time consuming or complicated exercise that could provide more realistic expectations of potential for introduced technologies to expand across a production area. It may be necessary to be a little cautious about using hired labor. Often the casual labor pool consist of other farmers who on any given day and for a variety of reason opt for doing casual labor instead of working their own fields. This then becomes a question of robbing Peter to pay Paul, to use a Christian metaphor. At this point it is important to remember that as development change agents the task is to increase the economic well being across the host community, and not enhance one cooperating individual at the expense of others.

Drudgery Relief & the Green Revolution of Asia

If the above scenario is accurate and most smallholder producers are more energy limited rather than knowledge limited so that they are “maxed-out” to the limit the calories they have available in their diets, then the best means of assisting them is to enhance the resources available to manage the land with a closer look at drudgery relief. This quickly implies mechanization of as much of the labor intensive agriculture field work as possible, with a particular emphasis on land preparation. For the tractor mechanization of smallholder communities perhaps it would be more accurate to consider access to Privately Owned Equipment made available for contract to members of the community rather than individual ownership. Drudgery relief could also include indirect drudgery relief activities such as privately owned village grain mills, and improved Domestic Water Supplies, etc. The Village Maize Mill appears to be the initial mechanization for rural Africa virtually replacing the pounding of maize and other grains. Women pounding grain in Africa has gone the same way the water buffalo has gone from Asia. Both of the above examples of indirect drudgery relief can have some rapid economic impact in terms of higher yields or the better quality needed to command higher prices, and take advantage of the value chain projects being implemented for their benefit.

This is also most likely the reality behind the success of the “Green Revolution” in Asia. While the development community likes to proclaim this as a success of technology innovations surrounding the development of high yielding rice and related technology, it was also accompanied by the retirement of the water buffalo in favor of rice power tiller. Would it really be possible to extend the high yield rice technology across an entire smallholder farm in sufficiently timely manner, if the farmer only had a buffalo to work with? According to a farmer in Northeast Thailand the conversion to the power tiller reduced by half his rainfed rice crop establishment time, dropping it from four months to two months. Once his rice production and with that his family’s food security was under control this farmer spontaneously diversified into value chain enterprises such as those currently being widely promoted for smallholders’ benefits across the development community. In his case this was poultry suspended over fishpond.

Linking the success of the green revolution to the self-financed shift to power tillers is usually over looked by the development community and has never been fully Evaluated or Appreciated. Overlooking this is a major disfavor and misrepresentation of the reality of how the green revolution of Asia succeeded and thus misleading the attempt to follow the Asian experience for Africa as envisioned by the Millennium Village Project and the Gates/Rockefeller efforts. Both are based on research into improved technology plus enhancing access to inputs, but fail to extend this to enhancing the operational resources needed to expedite crop establishment and land management.

However, largely independent of the development effort drudgery relief is slowly impacting Africa, as farmers or other people in rural villages gain the necessary financial support for purchasing used tractors for contract tillage for their neighbors as occurred in Madibira, Tanzania. As happened in Asia this is all self-financed and represents another lost opportunity by the development community to truly assist the smallholder beneficiaries. The real need may be for a more Community Based Approach to assisting smallholders based on the Symbiotic Relationship within villages of producers and local family based support enterprises, particularly those that can provide some drudgery relief.

Last Revised: 30 Aug 2008

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