Insights on the enormous impact seasons have in agricultural economies

Insights on the enormous impact seasons have in agricultural economies
Measuring maize height during data collection. Credit: Rachel Levenson

For farmers in rural Zambia, payday comes just once a year, at harvest time. This fact impacts nearly every aspect of their lives, but until now researchers hadn’t realized the true extent.

Economist Kelsey Jack, an associate professor at UC Santa Barbara, sought to investigate how this extreme seasonality affects farmers’ livelihoods, as well as development initiatives aimed at improving their condition. She and her coauthors conducted a two-year experiment in which they offered loans to help families through the months before harvest.

The researchers found that small loans in the lean season led to higher quality of life, more time invested in one’s own farm, and greater agricultural output, all of which contributed to higher wages in the labor market. The study, which appears in the American Economic Review, is part of a new wave of research re-evaluating the importance of seasonality in rural agricultural settings.

Jack came to this research topic through her personal experience working with communities in rural Zambia over the past 12 years. She would often ask folks what made their lives harder, and she kept hearing the same story. These farmers rely on rainfall, rather than irrigation, for their crops. So their harvest follows the seasons. This means that all of their income arrives at once, during harvest time in June.

“Imagine if you got your paycheck once a year, and then you had to make that last for the remaining 11 months,” Jack said. This leads to what’s referred to locally as the hungry season, or lean season, in the months preceding harvest.

When households find themselves low on food and cash, they rely on selling labor in a practice known as ganyu to make ends meet. Instead of working on their own farms, family members work on other people’s farms, essentially reallocating labor from poor families to those of better means—though it’s not always the same people in these positions from year to year.

When Jack spoke about this with her collaborator Günter Fink at the University of Basel, in Switzerland, he mentioned hearing the same story during his work in the region. They contacted another colleague, Felix Masiye, chair of the economics department at the University of Zambia, who said that while this was a known phenomenon in Zambia, no one had researched it yet. The three decided to validate the farmers’ story and quantify its effects.

Insights on the enormous impact seasons have in agricultural economies
A rural village in eastern Zambia. Credit: Nick Swanson

“This is basically the farmers’ paper,” said Jack. “They told us to write it and we did. And it turned out to be a really interesting story.”

Before even launching this project, the researchers met with communities and conducted a full 1-year pilot study across 40 villages. They designed the experiment around the input they received, including loan sizes, interest rates, payment timeframes and so forth. Throughout the project the team worked with village leadership and the district agricultural office, and had their proposal evaluated

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