Especially in a seasonal climate, water availability is an essential and limiting factor for agricultural production. In the following, smallholder farmers’ rationales and decision-making strategies on agricultural practices are presented and discussed. After introducing the experienced availability of water and the perception of farmers regarding the hydro-climatic challenges of a seasonal climate, we elaborate on how the expected agro-economic development of the valley is related to farmers’ aspiration and agency. Following a discussion where we relate our findings to the broader development debate over the importance of aspirations, we conclude by highlighting the impact of the physical environment on aspirations and linked farmers’ efforts.
Farmers’ Perceptions of Human–Water Interactions
The focus groups highlight how the perception of seasonality is a challenge for implementation of agricultural practices, decision strategies, and shaping future development expectations. In general, the farmers perceive the seasonality of the climate and its variability as normal and have developed specific strategies to cope with this uncertainty. This is similar to findings reported in Uganda, where farmers are also used to climate variation between March and May, although there they additionally perceive it to be more variable today than in the past (Osbahr et al. 2011). In the Kilombero, both rainfed and irrigation farmers show flexibility in their cropping calendars, by following the wetting front as it moves from lower to higher parts and by choosing rice genotypes according to their phenology and physiology to adapt to different flooding heights. For example, tall rice varieties were planted in flood-prone areas while short duration varieties were grown in upland areas during the short rains. Although farmers have specific dates on which to plant, they carefully observe the weather patterns to decide on the right time to start planting in response to the variability of the onset of the rainy season. These observations include the direction of cloud formation, sound of thunder, flowering and the appearance of fresh leaves of mango trees. These indicators vary with the location of the villages and their proximity to the mountains. The integration, and adoption, of climate change concerns is not specific to these communities. In the west African Sahel which is historically prone to long and severe droughts, farming communities have used indigenous knowledge to mitigate and adopt strategies that enabled them to cope with climate variability (Nyong et al. 2007). On the other hand, farmers with access to irrigation schemes highlight the risk-reducing impact of irrigation towards increasing food and income security. In addition, farmers from rainfed-only villages aspire to year-round cultivation using irrigation as water is the key limiting factor for cultivation and cannot be substituted as one farmer from Mbingu states: “We get a lot of training on the improved methods of farming but since the weather is not good, there is no way of implementing these technologies.” However, this is not a sentiment confined to the rainfed farmers and is also voiced by the irrigation farmers. In Njage, for example, the irrigation system is hardly effective during the dry season and most farmers are unable to cultivate under prevailing water scarcity, in particular those having their fields at the tail-end of the system.
Irrigation systems, when fully operative, provide two important opportunities. First, at the beginning of the rainy season, irrigation mitigates the high variability regarding the onset of the rains and the little dry spell during February. Second, irrigation schemes in general allow at least a second season of rice cultivation if the source provides enough water. Farmers from Mkula, living adjacent to the rainforest, are aware of the function of a healthy forest for water provision. They “are also very serious with forest protection and [they] (we) feel that this has the advantages of having rain in periods where our colleagues are facing challenges” (Farmer from Mkula). These few examples highlight how important the human–water interactions are for the Kilombero Valley. Similar findings were reported from central Tanzania, where a discussion group agreed that forests were a major contributing factor to rainfall but had lost confidence in other signs of nature (Slegers 2008). Water scarcity is a perceived constraint, but at the same time, smallholder farmers have adapted to the seasonality and also found coping mechanisms to increase agricultural output. We need this understanding of the physical environment to assess how the perception of and coping with water variability translates into and alters aspirations.
The resource base differs among the studied villages as well as the farming strategies followed. In the next section, we have a deeper look at how this affects farmer’s aspirations within the expected agro-economic development of the Kilombero Valley.
Farmers’ Aspiration in Relation to the Expected Agro-economic Development of the Kilombero Valley
The focus group discussion revealed how each farmer viewed the tension between their expected future of the Kilombero Valley and their own aspired future. Here the expectations describe their understanding of the likelihood of possible development, while the aspiration describes the farmers’ own preferences and hopes (Bernard and Taffesse 2014). In addition, decision-making strategies perceived constraints and different levels of agency could be identified, providing explanations for the gap between the generally expected future and personal levels of aspiration.
Figure 2 summarizes the findings of our positional analysis where the relation between individually expected agro-economic development and the farmers’ aspirations is portrayed. The unfilled circles in Fig. 2 represent those farmers who respond to expected agro-economic development by addressing potential constraints. These perceived constraints range from an imbalance between rice prices and living costs, land conflicts (land grabbing problematic, decrease of area per person due to population growth including migration and size of protected areas), limited water availability, and also lack of political power which put the expected agro-economic development at risk. While some see these constraints applying to all farmers of the valley, others point out that positive development will continue, although not all farmers will participate in this development as indicated by their different levels of aspiration.
Figure 2 suggests that the more farmers expect positive agro-economic growth for the Kilombero Valley, the more they aspire for themselves regarding well-being and benefits. Within this bigger picture, the positional map shows that there is no ‘easy’ clustering according to village or to an irrigation scheme because rainfed farmers also have high aspirations. Our analysis shows that farmers have different levels of agency to respond to their dynamic environment and that they have different capacities to cope with, e.g., climate variability (see previous results section). We could classify our participants into active agents (within the large black circle in Fig. 2), who increase their scope of action by adopting new actions and make material (e.g., power tiller) or immaterial (e.g., claim training) investments, and into more passive farmers, who rely on past practices and do not try to increase their room for action. Dorado (2005) describes the latter as routine agency which replicates past behavior and the former as strategic agency where actors actively take action to improve their current condition and close the gap between the current and the aspired condition (Rao et al. 2020). An example of the passive or routine agency comes from Mbingu where all the farmers hope for irrigation but rely on external intervention rather than their own activity [“We shall be very happy if it (irrigation) comes,” statement by Mbingu farmer and adored by the group]. There is a strong link between agency and aspiration as farmers with a high level of agency are the ones who aspire the most. For active agents having a good house, good education for their children and means of transport was somehow mandatory and they hoped to benefit from the extension of mechanization by buying a power tiller or even a tractor in order to cultivate larger fields and to mobilize labor for other activities such as starting their own business. With this impetus, aspirations will reinforce themselves and decrease the gap between preferred and expected futures. Furthermore, only 3 out of those 11 active/strategic agents perceive any constraint on their aspiration. In contrast, the opposite holds true for the more passive farmers, where 10 out of 13 are concerned about constraints potentially affecting and decreasing their aspiration level. They perceive little ability to work around those constraints. For example, in Minepa, volatile raw rice prices are perceived as a constraint by some farmers who do not see any option but to accept any development, while farmers from Idete and Mkula responded to this uncertainty by milling their rice to mitigate this price volatility and at the same time to increase their revenue.
Another major constraint raised by farmers is related to land conflicts. They fear income losses as they see the available area per person reducing although thoughts concerning arable land per person vary. Some think that the Kilombero Valley is very attractive to immigrants and that is leading to increased population growth and hence demand for agricultural land. Others argue that the efforts of the government to secure the protected areas will increase pressure on the available land. Furthermore, some think that outside-valley investors will acquire land and leave the local population landless as one farmer from Njage fears: “However, with the more people involved in farming (…) renting land will be difficult. Hence, there will be a challenge of smallholder farmers who are resource-constrained. Therefore, the future of our children is more likely to be a problem. Looking at Njage, you find that people from Dar Es Salaam have now infiltrated rice farming.” The latter concerns are pointed out strongly by farmers who generally see a very positive development of the valley but have lower aspirations regarding their own well-being. The perceived constraints directly translate into a reduced personal window of aspiration. Even though this concern is also shared by farmers who have higher aspirations, they do not personally feel affected and only see the risk for some of the local farmers. In general, most rainfed farmers (8 out of 10) refer to the problem of land grabbing, while only 3 out of 14 of the irrigation farmers share this concern. One could argue here that the integration of those farmers into a community-based system and its membership policy provides more security.
The lack of water during the dry season prevents year-round farming, so the rainfed farmers long for an irrigation scheme because they believe in a more general economic boost triggered by irrigation. According to this reasoning, one would expect generally high aspiration levels among irrigation farmers, but the picture is not so clear as Fig. 2 shows. During the focus group discussions and the transect walks in each of the three irrigated villages, it became apparent that the quality of the irrigation system, the amount of water during the dry season, the access to resources, and the applied agricultural practices differed between villages. Mkula’s farmers, whose aspirations are correlated with the expected agro-economic growth, are better equipped with a well-maintained irrigation scheme and effective distribution. Even though they also have to reduce the area under cultivation during the dry season, the decrease is far smaller than in the other two schemes. The effectiveness of the irrigation scheme also relates to better access to agricultural practice trainings, as one farmer reflects: “I would also like to add that the irrigation scheme has opened doors to various organizations that train us in different disciplines. We have been taught how to grow plants that ensure good nutrition and balanced diets. We received training in gender in water management. […] We are privileged to receive various training not in rice-growing alone but also in other areas of development.” The farmers with high strategic agency successfully implemented the lessons and consequently receive further training, a positive and reinforcing effect. The village is in close proximity to the main road to Dar es Salaam and the nearby water source is also an important factor. In contrast to this privileged position, Minepa and Njage suffer from less efficient distribution of water during the dry season. While some farmers there regularly receive water, many fields have no access to water during this period and only the farmers with fields closest to the source benefit. Additionally, some farmers struggle to buy timely and sufficient inputs such as fertilizers. Especially in Minepa farmers find timely harvest and transportation from the field difficult. These brief examples show that irrigation schemes alone are not a blueprint for success or for high aspirations. Other factors such as access to material and training resources, as well as timely availability of cash and labor, also correlate with the level of aspiration. Although access to irrigation is in general supportive, it is not a guarantee of high aspiration. Conversely, no access to irrigation is not synonymous with lower aspiration levels. For example, farmers of Idete and Mbingu, currently with no access to irrigation, have developed mechanisms to cope with the seasonality of water availability that limits their agriculture practices. They make maximum use of the different field elevations and the corresponding water availability at the start of the rainy season. Recession cropping with maize, cowpeas, or pigeon peas, either for food production or for enhancing soil fertility, is common in both villages. Some farmers in Idete even grow another cycle of rice by making use of diverted river water which is then kept in the fields using bunds. In Idete, we find some very strategic farmers with high agency and willingness to invest in order to react to changes. For example, they substituted their usual cassava production with rice cultivation in 2005–2010. The initial driver of change was a pest affecting the crop, but the farmers have since discovered the relative benefits of rice cultivation (e.g., market prices), and they shifted completely to rice. This capacity to aspire, in combination with the high level of agency, directly affects their level of aspiration and explains why farmers in Idete generally have higher aspiration rates than farmers in Mbingu. We can conclude that understanding current farming practices and especially their heterogeneity needs explanation in the context of the interplay between perception of the physical environment, agency, and aspiration.
Aspirations and Farmers’ Agency
Aspirations are generally perceived as one important factor influencing future-oriented behavior. They act as motivators to be pro-active and to aim at a multi-dimensional life outcome (Bernard and Taffesse 2014). However, Appadurai (2004) notes that aspirations are not distributed evenly among the population which is reflected in our results (Fig. 2). A poverty trap may be created when low aspirations limit social mobility (Ray 2006; Dalton et al. 2016). Ray (2006) highlights the impact of the size of the aspiration gap, which is described by the difference between the current standard and the individual aspired status. Hereby, the size of the gap highly influences the amount of efforts to close this gap. In contrast to a small or very large gap, a medium gap size follows the most efforts to materialize aspirations, because, if there is only a small gap the additional benefit is estimated as too low to take action, and if the gap is large, people feel overwhelmed preventing any action. In our study, farmers’ aspiration increases with their increased expected regional agro-economic growth. However, we could also identify a deviation from this more general result, where some farmers doubt to benefit from the positive expected agro-economic development of the valley’s future (see, e.g., farmers Nj2 and Nj4, Fig. 2). This decoupled perception of personal benefit-participation and regional development reveals another type of aspiration gap, with high consequences regarding the willingness to invest in the future as not only higher aspirations translate into higher investments (Kosec and Mo 2017), but also the perceived size of the gap. This willingness is reflected in our farmers’ aspirations and highlights the underlying livelihood strategy. Dorward et al. (2009) distinguish three types: “hang in”, “stepping up”, or “stepping out”. The identified strong link between the perception of the physical environment, the agency of a farmer, and her/his level of aspiration made it clear that the more farmers own and play out their agency the more they feel competent to face and respond to challenges and changes in the physical environment and the more they dare to aspire for themselves, and vice versa. This has a reinforcing effect which directly translates into adoption of agricultural practices that will close the gap between the current and the aspired condition (Rao et al. 2020). On the other hand, more passive agents feel less secure and, even though they might expect positive agro-economic development of the valley, their lower level of aspiration shows that their confidence that they will equally profit from this development is much lower. Passive agents are mostly farmers with limited access to resources such as inputs, labor, cash, and training. They are less certain regarding the likely revenue from a season and feel strongly affected by external conditions, so reducing their room for action which is described as the poverty trap or vicious circle (Appadurai 2004; Ray 2006; Dalton et al. 2016). Hence, the farmers with low levels of aspiration and who focus on food security are those who “hang in”, while the farmers with a high level of agency and hence higher aspirations belong to the socially mobile groups of “stepping up” or “stepping out”. Farmers who invest in mechanization to set labor free for other economic activities even belong to a hybrid type “stepping out while staying put” (Verkaart et al. 2018). Mausch et al. (2018) and Verkaart et al. (2018) propose that focusing on the “stepping up” farmers for dissemination of, e.g., agricultural technologies will fast-track development. Access to trainings is one example supporting this viewpoint. Farmers from Mkula receive considerably more trainings than farmers from the other villages and they are more effective in implementing and benefiting from the learning outcomes of those trainings. This bears the risk that development efforts are missing in other places, while the farmers currently benefitting may have reached a stage where this support reaches saturation. Farmers orient within their relevant peers and their aspiration window, potentially limiting aspirations below their own capabilities (Ray 2006), but the question remains if, and how, those aspirations are malleable (Kremer et al. 2019). Bernard et al. (2014), for example, showed a positive effect on people’s aspirations when they were exposed to documentaries about people with similar status who had achieved something. We see a similar effect here when farmers refer to neighboring villages. For example, in Idete, the farmer with the highest aspiration states: “In 10 years to come, I think there will be an increase in development (…) people are benefiting from rice production for example when you look at Chita [name of nearby village] there is a lot of development.” In contrast, for farmers of Mbingu such comparisons play a minor role regarding their aspirations. For example, the access to training in good agricultural practices such as in-line planting with seedlings instead of broadcasting seeds is appreciated, but not subsequently implemented. We could observe this during the transect walks. The farmers argue that there is a trade-off between the labor input and the revenue. These findings highlight that aspirations can be malleable by, e.g., external input although not in every case. In Mbingu’s case, the improved techniques are viewed as saving seed rather than increasing income; hence, they are only used in times of seed shortages. This is a good example of farmers who need to balance multiple strands of income generation under limited resources (Mausch et al. 2018). We can conclude that the combination of access to assets such as inputs and training builds the basis for active agency and increases confidence about increasing the personal room for action and also the capability to cope with environmental changes. However, this personal room for action is constantly challenged by seasonality and hydro-climatic variability. A lack of access to water or irrigation may put harvests at risk or even does not allow cropping at all. This uncertainty is perceived twofold. The variability of the onset of the rainy season is part of their lives, but at the same time farmers are aware of the importance of protecting their water source. This is not only true for Mkula with their irrigation scheme and proximity to the forest, but also for rainfed farmers in Mbingu who preserve higher elevated patches of secondary forest to ensure soil moisture after the rainy season. We regard these protection measures as non-material investments in “stepping up”. The same is true for other agricultural
decisions intended to cope with seasonality or hydro-climatic variability such as building bunds to keep the water in fields, by using residual soil moisture for a second crop and choosing location-specific rice genotypes adapted to different flooding heights. Hence, we see strong links between the level of aspiration, the current socioeconomic situation, and the coping capacity regarding challenges and constraints due to hydro-climatic variabilities expressed via agricultural practices.