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Program Plants Seed of Change

Tanzanian crops flourish under new program; will boon turn to bust when experts go home?

By Robert M. PressStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 16, 1990



ARUSHA, TANZANIA

THIS year, Ekaeli Petro's corn crop looks like a winner - just like last year. She farms a small plot between Arusha and Moshi, within sight of snow-capped Mount Kilimanjaro. ``Last year, I started using fertilizer,'' she says. ``I got 24 sacks per acre. Before, we used to get six sacks in one acre.''

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Thousands of farmers here and in five other African countries are making similar progress. On a continent where one in four people don't get enough to eat, that's good news.

Farmers here get credit to buy fertilizer and seeds, and receive instruction on how to use them from experts working in a program called Global 2000. Founded by former United States President Jimmy Carter, the program receives some of its funding from Japanese philanthropist Ryoichi Sasakawa.

Since 1986, Global 2000 has been directed by Norman Borlaug, who won a Nobel Peace prize in 1970 for bringing the ``green revolution'' to India. He helped India become self-sufficient by boosting its wheat production. At an age when many people are retired, Dr. Borlaug has been focusing his efforts on Africa with the help of a full-time staff that assists farmers in Ghana, Sudan, Zambia, Tanzania, Benin, and Togo.

Africa ``can produce so much food,'' Borlaug said in an interview in Tanzania. ``Good seeds and fertilizers have already been developed - they're just not being used enough,'' he says.

The results are encouraging, says Borlaug. Corn harvests are typically three to five times traditional yields. Sorghum crops are two to four times larger. But oil price hikes due to the Gulf crisis are likely to push up the price of imported petroleum-based fertilizers and their delivery cost.

Using fertilizers is a ``much more risky business'' than farming without them, says Peter Veit, a human ecologist with the World Resources Institute in Washington, D.C.

Fertilizers usually mean bigger crops, especially with corn and rice. But getting bigger crops requires having fertilizer available at the right moment, applying the right amounts, often using the right pesticides, and getting the right amount of rain, he says. If any of these elements is missing, ``you could put yourself in debt and not be able to feed your family,'' says Mr. Veit.

The alternative of not using fertilizer is safer, but crops are likely to be significantly smaller, he adds. Even improved farming methods such as crop rotation, planting several crops together in the same season, or letting land lie fallow for a while (where population pressures permit) can raise production levels only so far. After that, Veit says, fertilizers may be the only way to give a big boost to production of crops such as corn and rice. Importing fertilizers adds to Africa's dependence on the developed world, but the alternative is dependence on the outside world for imported food.

Right now Global 2000 staffers like Abu Foster, a Ghanaian working in Tanzania, do a lot of work that might not get done otherwise - such as pleading with local officials to ship fertilizers to Global 2000 farmers on time. In one case, a Zambian government fertilizer delivery reached farmers only after the crop was one-third grown, much too late to be effective.

``I'm a facilitator,'' says Foster. ``The season doesn't wait for administrative procedures.''

But US and World Bank officials caution that it may be difficult for farmers to keep producing bigger crops when Global 2000 experts go home.

``Once the foreigners pull out, things fall apart,'' says a US official with extensive agricultural experience in Africa and Asia.

A World Bank agricultural expert is also skeptical. ``I'm not saying they [Global 2000] aren't doing a good job.'' Yields do go up with fertilizer, says the official who didn't want to be named. But if you don't have a ``system'' to keep fertilizers being delivered to farmers, at the right time and at a reasonable price, temporary crop increases probably can't be maintained.

Borlaug says one battle the project is going to have within the next two to three years is getting governments to speed up deliveries. Global 2000's strategy is to ``assume less responsibility and turn it over to them [government] gradually,'' he says.

Many African countries are pursuing World Bank-supported reforms to streamline and improve their agricultural assistance to farmers. Borlaug hopes Global 2000's help to small farmers may be creating a ``constituency for change'' from the bottom up - farmers who may insist on getting fertilizers and seeds on time.

But Borlaug points out one aspect of the Global 2000 assistance that may last long after the project staff is gone.

``When we began in Ghana, none of these small farmers could receive credit,'' he says. That began to change as lenders saw the bigger crop production. Today, some 60 percent of the participating Global 2000 farmers in Ghana get their credit not from the program, but from private banks and other local institutions, says Foster.