During the "Financial Diaries with Smallholder Families" research in Mozambique, "Zaila," a twenty-three year old Mozambican woman living with her five-year old daughter, two year-old son, and 16-year-old brother named Nestor – told us that January through March was the worst time of year. Dubbed "the hunger season," many families in the Smallholder Diaries went hungry during this period, which coincides with the rainy season.
Since very little can be harvested in this period, families have less variety in their diet, resulting in physical weakness and susceptibility to sickness. Respondents reported suffering from bad digestion and constipation from eating cassava without much fiber or protein during this time. Some households still had something to eat in the hunger season, but, as they described in interviews, the composition of their diets was lacking.
Zaila and her family experienced this too. While she did not suffer from pronounced hunger during this time, these three months were marked by illness for her and Nestor. With the seasonal rains come standing water, and where there is standing water, there are mosquitos. Both Zaila and Nestor suffered from elephantiasis, a disease transmitted by mosquitos, which causes their extremities to swell in addition to other complications.
Zaila and Nestor, like many others during the hunger season, had to forgo medical care for their conditions. They had few food options and little money left over from the harvest season in the fall. Furthermore, inclement weather meant less work was available, reducing opportunities to earn additional cash. Construction projects and other forms of manual labor slowed down, and there were fewer opportunities for casual work on farms because of the heavy rains. Roads flooded, and transportation in and out of villages took much longer or is stalled entirely. These challenges curtailed the entire community’s access to markets and the health clinic and reduces the local availability of medicine, fuel, and other products. In this way, the hunger season is part of a vicious cycle of seasonality.
The Mozambique Smallholders Financial Diaries research found that the hunger season was about more than hunger itself: a number of other environmental and nutritional factors conspired to cause hardship for families like Zaila’s. From the information researchers collected on cash flows, hunger and foregone medical care, it’s clear that there was a marked increase in health issues during this time of the year.
To cope with this array of challenges, many families tried to work more in difficult months. Others stockpiled crops and in a few cases cash in an effort to spend down slowly and make these resources last. But the odds are stacked against smallholder families. The Diaries showed how weather, pests, poor health and family crises repeatedly thwart their efforts to save and work more, and to increase their production.
What financial and other tools might help farmers to better endure the rainy, sick, and hungry months?
Flexible savings products that can accommodate small and sporadic deposits: Financial mechanisms like Accumulating Savings and Credit Associations (ASCAs) that allow families to deposit intermittently when they do have a bit of surplus can help households build up small reserves. This pool of stored funds could also be useful as a type of household-generated safety net during the hunger season.
Non-financial interventions are also critical to improve well-being: Interventions to improve healthcare, provide wider safety nets, increase agricultural production, and better store the harvest are important for improvements in the overall wellbeing of non-commercial households. Vouchers that allowed bus and taxi drivers to receive payment from NGOs or the government for transportation to medical care could ease some of these constraints.
Improved crop storage: Close to two-thirds of the Smallholder Diaries sample in Mozambique lost crops in storage, which points to a clear opportunity to improve both their agricultural and financial lives. Smallholders in Mozambique store their crops in rudimentary burlap sacks in the house or simple bamboo cisterns that pests can easily penetrate. Financing or donation of improved metal storage facilities could make a difference.
Unconditional cash transfers: Rigorous evidence shows that direct unconditional transfers from GiveDirectly led poor families in Kenya to improve their homes, increase consumption, own more livestock, and increase small business income. The fact that Smallholder farmer households in Mozambique are not yet using mobile money makes replicating this specific system difficult. The prospect of transfers for this extremely vulnerable population would be a compelling use case for families to adopt mobile money accounts, even if using a shared cell phone.
The Smallholder Diaries in Mozambique reveal how health and nutrition, food security, and irregular income are related. It is possible that in some geographies focusing on health may go a long way in helping rural families to be productive and ultimately to experience less hunger.