First Person

Reflections on three farmers, teachers, innovators

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A colleague once remarked to me when we were visiting a farming community in Mali that “If I had to work as hard as the people here do, I’d be dead in a week.”

I often wonder how long I would last.

Despite the fact that small-scale farmers grow a significant proportion of the world’s food, few of them get much help from their own government. What they lack in capital, equipment, and technology, they must make up for with sweat and creativity. Oxfam helps farmers find ways to work together, share ideas, and learn from each other.

As I sit by the fire on these cold, dark days and reflect on 2013, I am thinking about just a few of the farmers I met who are making an effort to end poverty, not just for themselves, but also for others.

Saidou Bamogo

Saidou Bamogo at his rice field in Burkina-Faso. Photo by Brett Eloff/Oxfam America
Saidou Bamogo at his rice field in Burkina-Faso. Photo by Brett Eloff/Oxfam America

Last spring I went on a fascinating trip to West Africa to help document some innovative agricultural ideas for a research project. In Burkina Faso we encountered an organization called the West Africa Seed Program that helps train local farmers to produce improved seed varieties. Those farmers then teach others how to grow rice, maize, and other vegetables with the improved seeds. Saidou Bamogo is one of the farmers we met near Burkina’s southern city Bobo-Dioulasso, and he said that since he got the training to become a commercial rice seed producer, he has improved his techniques for growing other crops like sorghum. “I help my neighbors to learn so they can produce more too,” he told me early one evening in his rice field. “They see me as someone from whom they can learn, and I say ‘if you do the same you can be like me.’ People around here want to be good farmers, and if I earn more I also want them to learn new techniques and earn more.”

Svay Mon

Five years ago Svay Mon joined a Saving for Change group Oxfam helped organize in her village in Kampot province in southern Cambodia. Since then, she has gone from a subsistence-level rice farmer to an entrepreneur who has started a vegetable growing business, thanks to her savings and small loans from her group. She volunteered to help run the group, keeping track of all the deposits, loans, and loan payments. It’s a time consuming role with a lot of responsibility, but Mon does it to help other members of the group, most of them farmers, understand that they have alternatives to loans from commercial microfinance institutions. “The group is better, because when we borrow money from the group, the interest goes back to us,” she explains just before a group meeting at her home. It’s better than paying interest to a bank, she says.

Meas Sopheap

Photo by Chris Hufstader/Oxfam America
Photo by Chris Hufstader/Oxfam America

When Meas Sopheap learned new rice-growing techniques called the System of Rice Intensification from Oxfam’s partner Srer Khmer in Cambodia, she not only started earning more money and solved her food shortage problem, she also became a trainer of others in her village. “When I learned how to grow more rice, I did not want to keep it to myself,” she told me when I visited her in October. “I want to help others learn this technique, so they can benefit from it as well. I want to help people in this village grow more rice and improve their living conditions because if they have enough food to eat we will all live in harmony; we won’t have any thieves and people will be happy together.”

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