Patrick Haigis was born and raised in rural New Hampshire. He spent much of his childhood outdoors, so naturally had an interest and respect towards the environment and conservation in general. After studying Environmental Conservation Studies at The University of New Hampshire, he moved to China, where he taught English for two years and learnt to speak Mandarin. He then studied Global, Environment, Politics and Society at The University of Edinburgh, part of which involved a placement based dissertation with a non profit charity called Seed Change Tanzania. He eventually began working full time for the company and moved permanently to Kigoma in October 2018. Over the past two years, Patrick has found himself intrigued by the intersection of humanitarian and development work, both with an environmental focus (very cool indeed). I caught up with him to talk about the ethos of Seed Change, the projects he endorses and to share the amazing work of the company and everyone involved.
What is the purpose of Seed Change Tanzania?
To support small holder farmers to lift themselves out of poverty by sustainably intensifying production on their farms. The average farmer in Kigoma has less than four acres of land, which is the entirety of their farm. We want to make sure they are being as productive as possible on that land whilst also creating a sustainable system that is going to work from year to year. The aim is to help them get higher yields, without changing their labour or land use practices. In the past this has meant in we have given farmers high yielding oil palm trees, which produce 200% more oil than the local variety. Seed Change Tanzania trees are a hybrid of Dura (the local species) and Pisifera (a Central American species).
We also teach farmers about sustainable agriculture practices, environmental conservation and financial literacy. The big push we are working on is a move towards agroforestry. This also means teaching about compost to improve soil health. To sum up – SCT is about offering sustainable systems that allow farmers to earn more money. Poverty and food insecurity are some of the biggest problems here in Kigoma.
What does your role involve at Seed Change?
The programme manager role involves managing the day to day operations; overseeing the nursery (with nursery manager of course), ensuring our seedlings are growing well, working with our field staff to make sure our farmers are being supported and if they are having any issues, we are helping out however we can. I also work on monitoring and evaluation, so for example, right now we are doing a tree health survey – evaluating how well (in terms of growth rate) our trees are doing that have been given to farmers. This is usually through a report.
The big thing to mention is our pivot towards agroforestry. For the past year, I have been conducting field tests of agro forestry combinations at our example farm (known as shamba darasa in Swahili). We are staring our pilot project over the next year, so it’s currently getting off the ground. We are partnering with ten small holders, to have a collection of plots of oil palm tethered agroforestry (one acre each). Oil palm is the main tree species for the project, but there will be others, as well as a mix of high value and staple crops. I also manage the communications; social media (with the help of our intern), write annual reports and have created something called the small holder innovation series, which has been going on the past year. This is a collection of briefs about low cost, sustainable agriculture techniques (financially and efficiently) – We are trying to promote those for people to be earning more money on their farms. On top of that, I manage the finances, budgets, track donations, do HR (patrol, loans, finances, petty cash) – I suppose the less interesting side to the job.
We believe that widespread adoption of our high-yielding trees, grown here at our nursery and distributed to farmers, will shift the industry equilibrium from its current subsistence level to a virtuous cycle of re-investment and growth.Seed Change website
Can you mention the prominence of any female land workers?
So we conducted some initial surveys and found that women are really underrepresented in oil farming. Women account to around 30% of our farmers. We are tying to change that and get more women involved by giving a fifty fifty split of tree distribution – half going to women. We are working hard to expand the presence of women in the industry. For our agriculture trainings, we of course try to engage as many women as possible.
Do you see the community impact of your projects?
Totally. There’s not many examples of community level change, aside from farmers adopting different farming practices on a community scale, but definitely at the household level. The local Dura variety takes 7-8 years to produce fruit, and our trees take 3-5. The fifth year is when the tree really makes significant increases in harvest and we are at the latter stages right now with our nursery. We are seeing a real impact on farmers livelihoods. There is definitely a positive income change and we have seen significant increases in income. We’ve even had farmers come to the nursery and tell us, anecdotally, how they were able to send their children to school or how they are able to buy more food for their household, for example. We are going to be doing another livelihood survey in 2021 (not super relevant) but at that point, we will have gathered a lot more data to back it all up!
What other projects have you worked on?
My work has stayed within the realms of smallholder agriculture. Within this wheelhouse though, we are working to make our example farm (shamba darasa) completely organic, which means raising seedlings without fertilisers. Right now we use micro-doses, because the soil is unhealthy. We are currently trying to switch over to compost and I have been pushing this for the past year – setting up compost bins, managing the input schedule and creating partnerships with restaurants here in Kigoma, so we can take their food waste (there are lots of juice bars around with rinds and fruit peels). In addition to this, we’ve been teaching about compost and how individuals can do a DIY style on their own farms, so we are educating people as well.
We are also in partnership with the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNITO) – both branches of the UN. We’ve been working on an initiative called 3ADI+(a mouthful) trying to improve the value chain in specific industries and countries. Tanzania and oil palm is one of them. We have developed a series of recommendations that we put forward to the Tanzanian government last December, which was great for both parties. Often there is limited funding so until that happens, our development is also limited.
Explain how Seed Change is driving palm oil to become more sustainable?
It does seem like a crazy choice to be doing palm oil for a non profit that is centred around sustainable agriculture. We have witnessed palm oil destroying land in places like Indonesia and Malaysia. I fully agree. BUT… let me break down the reasons about why we are in that industry.
The reason palm oil gets a bad rap is because it’s found in everything. It’s a ubiquitous crop – soap, toothpaste, food, textiles – I mean we know this stuff. It’s ubiquitous because it’s so cheap, and it’s so cheap because it’s so efficient. Let’s say, at the baseline, we need palm oil because it’s found in so many products. Here in East Africa, it’s used as a cooking oil for example. If we look at one acre of palm vs one acre of sunflower (for sunflower oil), palm is way more efficient in every sense. All of the oil ‘alternatives’ would create problems twice to six times worse. They require so much more land, and that would be the real issue.
The area that palm is grown, is super valuable – it can only be grown within five to ten degrees of the equator, so has very specific growing climatic requirements. Kigoma is one of the few places that falls within that sweet spot [where Patrick lives and works]. There is a local demand – people are using it. Seed Change is working with it because of that established market and because it’s the highest value crop here in Kigoma.
When my boss arrived here, he noticed the potential for poverty and food insecurity and to remedy that, palm oil was the best answer. We are trying to improve the sustainability of the whole industry. The big thing is the agroforestry approach. We want to limit monoculture plantations as much as possible. Plantations aren’t necessarily an issue here, as people don’t have the money, resources or the labour to manage such a large operation -but for the small operations that people have, we want to create a full system, which is earning farmers money, helping with food security, so they’re growing crops for household consumption and generally growing higher value crops in addition to palm. We are in the process of discovering what that combination of inputs is, but that is the plan for coming year. We will then use this information to retrofit oil palm farms to have greater levels of biodiversity, improve soil health, nutrient availability, water retention and resiliency.
The last thing I will mention is that, Tanzania, as a country, has the potential to produce a lot of palm oil used for domestic consumption (definitely more than the country is producing right now). But like most countries, Tanzania is importing it from Indonesia and Malaysia, which obviously has a huge carbon cost, not to mention the threat to biodiversity. So we are also trying to boost up the domestic market to limit and reduce Tanzania’s reliance on oil imports.
CHECK OUT THE AMAZING WORK OF SEED CHANGE HERE: