In fall 2006, when we learned the seeds available in Kabul were unreliable, we carried tomato and onion seeds in our luggage to Afghanistan. The seeds had been donated by Nabi Tawakali (now TIE vice-president), a seed purveyor for more than 16 years. Are Nabi’s seeds any good? They’d better be. There’s a risk to providing seeds. If they don’t work or if they aren’t better, families can suffer dire consequences. Most Afghan farmers have very small plots of land to farm, often one jerib (1/2 acre). One bad harvest makes for a very lean year.
The following spring, a few farmers were selected to test the seeds against the seeds they had been using. Masood Sattari made the following video showing the comparison when he was in Afghanistan.
The qualitative and quantitative difference between the two was staggering. The tomatoes on the vine at the beginning of the video were produced with the tomato seeds we provided. The vines seen at the end (with no tomatoes) were planted with seeds purchased in Kabul. The seeds were planted at the same time.
By 2008, more farmers wanted in. Almost 140 farmers were selected by 14 maliks (leaders) to receive enough onion seeds and fertilizer to each plant one jerib (1/2 acre). This distribution went smoothly. That is, if you don’t count the fact that heavy rains postponed the distribution, and that members of the shura (local council) decided to debate the plan. (Every assistance program is subject to challenge by those who are not on the recipient list. Someone invariably argues that if everyone doesn’t receive assistance, no one should.) Eventually, a vote was taken and TIE’s planting program was approved by the shura. One key to success is to involve the villagers and their leaders in the selection process and to make the program transparent and verifiable. Trust takes much longer to cultivate than onions.
The “seeds and fertilizer” program continued to expand. In fall 2008, we distributed fertilizer to 185 farmers. By spring 2009 we learned that the tomato seeds we have been providing produce an average of 80 tomatoes per vine, compared with 30 from seeds purchased in Kabul. The tomatoes are also considerably larger. Therefore, the increase in productivity and income from Nabi’s seeds was about 300%! No wonder so many farmers showed up in April for our program. We gave 276 farmers tomato seeds and split with each farmer the cost of two bags of fertilizer.
We were able to quadruple the number of farmers participating in this program due to donors’ generosity and the farmers’ willingness to share in the cost of fertilizer. We’re now moving away from giveaways, however. It’s not always easy when so many other programs make outright grants. Leaders, unfortunately, can afford to refuse what’s offered and make demands which we are unwilling or unable to meet. The poorest farmers are the ones who suffer. When we can’t work through the leaders, we try to find ways to work around them.
It’s very unusual to find ourselves in a position where village leaders are refusing to accept help that doesn’t meet their terms. For now, we are taking our resources to areas where leaders aren’t trying to dictate terms. There is no shortage of places that welcome our assistance.