Poverty Traps

Water Pump in Kandeu Village; Credit: Erin Andrews

A poverty trap describes a situation where populations encounter mechanisms that reinforce a cycle of poverty. Below we explore a few of the poverty traps facing Malawian smallholders, those cultivating less than two hectares, including: the role of seasonality and ganyu (or informal) labor, impediments to agricultural technology adoption, inability to afford agricultural inputs, risk aversion, climatic change, and illness (Conroy et al., 2006).

Seasonality frequently dictates how and when smallholders can allocate land, labor, and finances to their agricultural practices (Austin, 2008). In Malawi, ganyu labor, or informal piecemeal labor, is a common strategy for vulnerable smallholder farmers to earn cash or food during the growing season while they are waiting for their own harvest. Seasonal agricultural labor requirements generally peak at the same time the previous season’s food stocks are lowest. Thus many smallholders go to work for better-resourced farmers in order to supplement their own food stocks (Barrett et al. 2001). As a result, the most vulnerable farmers may neglect working on their own farms at a critical period for maintaining or enhancing productivity, resulting in a downward spiral for food production.

Works Cited

Ajayi, O. C., Franzel, S., Kuntashula, E., & Kwesiga, F. (2003). Adoption of improved fallow technology for soil fertility management in Zambia: Empirical studies and emerging issues. Agroforestry Systems59, 317-326. doi:10.1023/B:AGFO.0000005232.87048.03

Andersson, J.A. & Giller, K.E. (2012). On heretics and God’s blanket salesmen: contested claims for conservation agriculture and the politics of its promotion in African smallholder farming. In Sumberg, J., Thompson, J. (Eds.), Contested Agronomy: Agricultural Research in a Changing World. London: Earthscan. 

The Snapp Lab is investigating the following promising options: