In South Africa, Tanager Offers Smallholder Farmers a Pathway to Commercial Maize Production 

farmers and agronomists stand in a maize field in South Africa

South Africa has a rich tradition of maize farming, ranking among the top maize producers in the world. Smallholder farmers in the Eastern Cape province have long been shut out of this success story, however, due to a variety of factors. Small land sizes and lack of knowledge of good agricultural practices kept many operating at or near subsistence levels. Market actors in this area weren’t connected to one another, preventing them from taking advantage of business opportunities. And government agricultural subsidies, while helpful in supporting previously disadvantaged farmers, masked inefficiencies and contributed to the ignoring of market dynamics. 

Seeing farmers’ missed opportunities here, in 2022 Tanager partnered with John Deere Foundation to provide smallholder farmers a pathway to commercial maize production. In the process, farmers would earn more money and increase their resilience as the effects of climate change become more pronounced. 

The project, Imbewu Farmer Development, began at a modest scale. Four lead farmers stepped up to oversee demo plots, from which the remaining 150 project participants could learn about good agricultural practices, including soil health, basic plant nutrition, and pest and disease mitigation. The project provided additional critical training in agricultural data collection and bookkeeping. In total, farmers cultivated 214.5 hectares of maize during the initial year. 

“Planting maize is no simple task, but this project came at a crucial time when I was only planting 4 hectares,” observes Nokuthula Mafikwana, one of the lead farmers. 


From Demo Farming to Block Production, and Beyond

The pilot activity proved immediately impactful. Survey results from the 2022 agricultural season showed, for example, that participating farmers experienced a 12% increase in their average yields. They also enjoyed a substantial 25% increase in income earned from yellow maize. These and other results showed Tanager and John Deere that we could launch at scale. 

A man and woman working with the Imbewu project laugh in a maize field in South Africa

Under the envisioned pathway strategy, the lead farmers who started out cultivating demo plots would, in their second year with the project, consolidate production with other farmers to become more competitive. Block production and decision-making would lead to greater economies of scale and enhanced bargaining power. Once crops are harvested, proceeds would be shared amongst the producers according to their respective contributions.  

Over the years, these farmers will build up their capabilities and production, allowing them to eventually make the transition into commercial maize production. At the same time, new cohorts of smallholder farmers will enter the project, with each new group featuring a handful of demo farmers who will lead their fellow project participants along the path to commercial production. 

Tanager is also building up the enabling environment to aid in farmers’ transition to commercial maize production. Because of their smaller scale, smallholder farmers have typically been shut out of the region’s trade ecosystem. The project is therefore increasing farmer access to mechanization providers, agrodealers, and financial institutions who are now working with demo farmers to co-sponsor their demo plots. The private sector partners can use these plots to demonstrate the latest agricultural innovations and technologies, provide training to farmers, and offer access to equipment and tailored financial products—thereby securing themselves future customers as farmers continue to grow. 

Seeing the Impact

In 2023, then, the lead farmers transitioned to block production. Each lead farmer recruited at least 10 other participants, and the farmers collectively began production on a minimum of 20 hectares. The lead farmers have additionally been coordinating small investments in land and cash to co-finance mechanization activities.  

As part of activity scale-up, Tanager strengthened existing partnerships with area stakeholders and forged some new relationships. Partnerships now include the public Eastern Cape Rural Development Agency; local non-government organization Ukhanyo Farmer Development; and private sector collaborators, such as Pannar Seed, Bayer, Kynoch Fertilizer, and Senwes.  

A man reaches up to check the height of a corn stalk in a field in South Africa

Through these, Tanager was able to organize mechanization training for farmers in late September and October, providing them with profound new information on proper use of equipment and inputs. Arrangements with area agrodealers allowed for inputs—including improved maize seeds, fertilizers, and crop protection products—to be delivered in the ensuing months. The majority of farmers were able to complete their planting in December. 

The path to commercial maize production isn’t without its challenges. South Africa is currently feeling the effects of climate change, and Tanager agronomist Nobuhle Gumede reports, “El Niño has hit us badly.”  

Even so, crop yields continue to increase under the project’s purview. Lead farmers, who began the project with average maize yields of 2.3 tons per hectare, are now anticipating a yield of 6 tons per hectare.  

“Initially I found the program daunting,” shares Mafikwana, the lead farmer, “but now I realize its true value. With Tanager’s assistance, I can clearly see the impact.”