Stepping Into the Field: Bridging the Gap between Researchers and Local Farmers in Tanzania

Jan. 5, 2018

Tanzania’s natural vegetationAgriculture in Tanzania is composed mostly of small holder farms, which average about 5 acres in size. Though 90% of Tanzanian livelihoods rely on agriculture, land productivity and soil quality have greatly diminished as a result of substandard agricultural practices and unaffordable fertilizers. As soil quality decreases, so do crop yields, contributing to widespread food insecurity and malnutrition in Tanzania and throughout the greater East Africa region.

Steven Doyle, a M.S. student of the School of Environment and Natural Resources, conducted field research on the interaction between agricultural practices, cropping systems, and soil quality in Morogoro - a city in the eastern region of Tanzania - for 2 months in the summer of 2017. The research was a collaboration with the Sokoine University of Agriculture (SUA), and supported by the Office of International Programs in Agriculture in the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.

Challenges to Research

Steven Doyle, collecting soil samples“When I arrived in Morogoro, I was fully prepared to study the effects of crop rotations of legumes on subsequent maize yields,” explains Steven. “As it turned out, it was almost impossible to get access to farms due to late season flooding.”

Steven and his supervisor at SUA, Dr. Nyambilila Amuri, instead decided to interview farmers and investigate how legumes were being grown locally. They discovered the way farmers utilize legumes was different from what had been recorded in previous scientific studies, and decided to further analyze these practices, believing that this would provide a valuable contribution to further understanding Tanzania’s agricultural practices and their impacts on the soil.

Steven was anticipating any number of potential obstacles throughout the course of his field study: language, transportation, broken equipment, storms, local holidays, and even local policies. For instance, during the first two weeks at SUA, Steven and Dr. Amuri worked through the local government’s regulatory process in which the law restricts scientific access to rural communities. They were asked to meet and explain the purpose of their research to Morogoro’s municipal administrator, the local administrator of agriculture, the extension agents in each village they surveyed, and those villages’ elders, so that they could be granted permission to visit farmers and survey how they managed their crops. Soil sample analysis had become another issue altogether: the Tanzanian Ministry of Energy and Minerals enacted a moratorium on soil exports since mining companies had been smuggling precious minerals out of the country under the guise of soil. To solve this problem, facsimiles of the necessary analyses needed to be conducted at SUA. Steven even travelled between Morogoro, Dodoma, and Dar es Salaam in search of officials who could approve an exemption to the export ban for the soil.

Researching Locally, Cooperating Globally

Maize and Legume Intercrop in MorogoroIn Steven’s study, eight fields were eventually selected for analysis, and all were owned by smallholder farmers and had been cropped in the same pattern for a minimum of three years. Different from previous studies, which assumed farmers grew legumes one season and maize the next as large-scale farms do, Steven discovered that many farmers only plant maize. Other farmers plant vegetables in one season and an intercrop of maize and legumes in another, but they prune the leaves off of the legumes to eat fresh. Some farmers used irrigation to water their crops, while others never did. These complex cropping systems had not been documented in Tanzania, but Steven’s research provided an insight of cropping systems utilized by the farmers of Morogoro, and realized they would have significantly diverse effects on the land.

“These findings will be a boon to both Morogoro’s extension staff and agricultural researchers who need to know about on-farm conditions,” claims Steven. “Ideally, findings from this study will be used to improve the livelihoods of farmers in Morogoro and in communities beyond.” Moreover, Ohio State will benefit from the collaboration, and will experience broader international exposure throughout Tanzania.

Personal Transformative Learning

Steven has always dreamed of working in developing countries. Tanzania contains various agro-ecosystems and there is insufficient information on how local farmers tend their land. He also looked forward to experiencing such a different landscape from Ohio.

“It sounds overly romantic, but I could not wait to walk in between maize fields and see for myself what it is like for farmers who live so close to this land.”

This project has been transformative for Steven. As he said, “I was able to collaborate internationally, design and carry out a successful research project, learn farming practices from farmers, and use standard soil analytic techniques to generate useful insight.”

He explains that it’s very important for him to refine these skills because he intends to continue working with farming communities in developing countries for the rest of his career.

“I am very grateful for the support and guidance of all involved, particularly Dr. Mark Erbaugh and Mr. Beau Ingle in the Office of International Programs in Agriculture. This research would not be possible without the funding and logistic support they provided.”