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Livelihood Systems
Market transform rural livelihoods in drylands - chickpea sellers in Ethiopia

Rural livelihoods in the semi-arid tropics often depend on agriculture, yet present diversity across regions, communities and between households. These livelihoods systems are vulnerable because they are exposed to various dryland stresses such as lack of rainfall and high temperatures.

280 millionNumber of people who live on less than $1 a day in dryland Asia and sub-Saharan Africa

2 out of 3 - Africans depend on smallscale farming for livelihoods

30  - African countries will see population double by 2050

42%Youth are unemployed in sub Saharan Africa

30 - 60% - People on average rely on non-farm incomes in SSA and South Asia

Understanding livelihood options for the rural poor of SAT: a systems perspective

To reach a certain living standards rural households (the livelihood reference unit) define a combination of livelihood strategies (eg agriculture intensification/extensification, livelihood diversification or migration) according to their local context (eg agrecological zones and climate, social environment, economical and political environment) and their livelihood resources (human, social, natural and financial capital).

The farmer decision making process to adopt new farming and livelihood options is not only based on economic objectives. Social bonding; quality of life (demand on time and labour); low risk management to avoid indebtedness by buying minimal inputs (like bartering instead of buying seeds); are some of the livelihood criteria farmers use to engage in certain farming systems and non-farm activities.

The livelihoods of the rural population in the semi-arid tropics are very diverse, yet often depend on agriculture as a means of obtaining food and income, making them dependent on land and water access. 

Livelihood typology varies along a large spectrum between subsistence farmers and farmers fully engaged in cash crop cultivation like cotton, castor,  paddy, sugarcane, horticulture(commercial farming); a diversity of farming systems (crop systems, crop-livestock systems, agroforestry); and different access to land, water, markets, institutions and infrastructures.

The majority of smallholder farmers practice rainfed agriculture (over 60%). Dependent on rainfalls, and without irrigation equipment, many farms cannot generate enough employment along the year (number of days of work between 100 and 150 days). This means they have to find other livelihoods options such as being a rural labourer on larger farms or seasonal migration, for the men in particular, towards cities. We have to take into account livelihood seasonality, with seasonal cash flow and seasonal food availability.

Vulnerability and resilience - These rural livelihood systems, exposed to various dryland stresses, are highly vulnerable. Drought or flash floods for instance can destroy crop and livestock production.  The Village Level Studies shows the different household coping mechanisms to be as resilient as possible. Their vulnerability is increasing with climate change, population growth, or other emerging challenges.

Livelihoods diversification is a response to such vulnerability: diversification of farming systems (crop - crop and livestock - agroforestry: see for instance the sorghum grain-feed example) and the use of multipurpose crops like pigeonpea increase livelihood options and consequently resilience of the farm.

Different communities and individual families within a village develop different livelihood strategies and adaptation capacity to counteract such stresses.

Livelihoods and gender - Because women tend often to have less access to capital, education and land, and spend more time on household chores and family nutrition, they have fewer livelihood opportunities than men.

 How to improve rural livelihoods in SAT: Institutions and organisations to improve each household's capabilities for better livelihoods

Livelihoods systems analysis can be applied at different levels: individual, household, village, watershed, agroecological zone, country. If we look at one farming family, there are several interacting pillars to improve their livelihoods

  • Acquire new knowledge and skills (Human capital)

With knowledge and skills, households innovate and adopt improved technologies for higher productivity and better adaptation - resilience.

Some examples: The Virtual Academy of the Semi-Arid Tropics (VASAT) connects farmers and scientists to share and learn new ways of resilient farming in drought-prone areas. To disseminate best practices of soil nutrient management, Bhoo Chetana employs progressive farmers as extension facilitators to teach other farmers how to test soil and apply natural ways of increasing yields. Social learning  (Bt cotton case study)

  • Stronger together (Social Capital)

The ability to develop social networks helps build resilience (coping mechanisms), be exposed to innovations, and diversify livelihood options. For instance, farmers from Rajasthan used to save and informally share pearl millet seeds of preferred traits even during drought years. Kinship played a strong role in disseminating information about high yielding varieties and seed saving methods.

It is important to look at "excluded groups", eg split-off households and women-headed households, which are more vulnerable to shocks.

Setting up and expanding farmers' organisations improves access to assets and enables collective action (eg watershed committees to better manage water and soil resources).

  • Improve natural resources in particular soil and water and its access (Natural Capital):

In drylands, stress water scarcity, poor soil fertility and land degradation are limiting smallholder agriculture. Our integrated watershed management research shows it is possible to significantly increase water and soil conservation with low-cost collective interventions, which lead to an increase of irrigated land and farming and livelihood diversification. A farm-household decision modeling study highlights however that such an approach has to take into account trade-offs to ensure sustainable livelihoods, as soil erosion and nutrient mining may occur in certain agricultural intensification scenarios. 

Investing in infrastructure (roads, power, communications) towards marginalized regions is a development priority as it increases the mobility of people and goods and multiplies livelihoods options. In particular, better access to markets has an impact on farmers' incomes, as well as a more diverse choice of inputs for more productive agriculture, as long as the existing demand and offer is adapted to smallholder farmers (inclusiveness).

  • Access to financial means encourage more investments and better risk management (Financial Capital):

Credit and saving services are very limited for poor smallholders in rural SAT who are not able to smooth income variability.  The warrantage system is a virtuous circle. It enables farmers to finance fertilizer input purchases for microdosing and improved land management for better yields. Designing a crop insurance scheme adapted to dryland farming is complex (read for instance vulnerability and adaptation in Indian's SAT). 

  • Equity and local governance

Good governance is essential to ensure an enabling environment for better farming and development of non-farm activities; and equity for the provision of rural services to all, especially towards the poor and the marginalized population groups.  

Welfare assets - subsidies, employment aid schemes, health and education services - will influence the livelihood systems for households and the next generation. For instance, providing better health care access and improving health status and nutrition of household members is a key component of poverty reduction efforts. HIV/AIDS which plagues sub-Saharan Africa is one important cause of poverty, in majority affecting women. Livelihood empowerment contributes to the mitigation of HIV pandemics.

Adapting the offer - Re-packaging fertilizer into smaller, more affordable bags has sharply increased demand.

Promoting better crop-livestock integration can make a difference to farmers’ livelihoods and food security in Zimbabwe.
Mtama 1 sorghum variety for beer-making - A new livelihood opportunity in Tanzania.
Vermicomposting - An agroecological practice that increases yields and incomes (Dungarpur model watershed).
Non-farm activities like this retail shop in Kothapally village in Andhra Pradesh are important for rural livelihoods.
Women have fewer livelihood opportunities than men (Bioreclamation of Degraded Lands, Niger).
Investing in education for better livelihoods for the next generation – A public school in Rajasthan, India.
Water harvesting structure - Community watershed action enhances water and soil resources.
Woman agrodealer in Africa – Responding to the market needs of smallholder farmers in drylands.