Resilience is a current buzzword in international development – but what does it actually mean for the smallholder farmers we work with?

According to the Overseas Development Institute, resilience is “how a system, community or individual deals with disturbance, surprise and change."

At Send a Cow, we use the word ‘resilience’ a lot – and it is a core part of the work we do. Making sure farmers can produce enough to feed their families is hugely important. But they can only feed their families if they also learn how to withstand the shocks and crises that inevitably come their way.

This is particularly true in the face of climate change, where wildly changing weather can destroy one harvest through drought and the next through floods.

There are lots of different ways people can become more resilient. Our report, Building Resilience, groups them as environmental, economic and social.

Alemu Buka and Bekelech Senato, EthiopiaEnvironmental resilience

‘If you feed the soil, it will feed you.”

Alemu Buka and his wife Bekelech Senato have 0.75 acres of steeply sloping land in Bonke, southern Ethiopia, which needs to feed them and their seven children.

Over recent years, they have noticed the rains becoming more unpredictable. Dry spells damage crops and rain – which sometimes leads to floods - disrupts growing cycles and farming activities.

Environmental resilience can take different forms. One is to plant a variety of crops, so that if disease strikes in one type of plant others can survive. Another is to learn to use natural resource management techniques to help capture and conserve water and protect the land from erosion.

Alemu and Bekelech Senato started with their soil. They now contour their land so that the soil can’t be washed away by heavy rains, and enrich it with manure from their livestock. They grow more than 70 varieties of crops and vegetables, including three different types of potato to withstand different weather conditions, faba beans, leafy vegetables and enset (Ethiopia’s very hardy staple crop). As Alemu says, “if everything else fails, we have enset!”

They are also growing apples and apple tree seedlings, giving them another income source. Alemu thinks doing this is the most useful change he has made in the face of the changing climate: “It provides money, it’s not normally affected by heavy rain and it can always be irrigated.”

Ha Sefako jewellery productionEconomic resilience

As our farmers start producing more than they need to feed themselves, they are able to sell the excess and start to save money. Communities set up savings schemes, giving people money they can access in times of need or hardship.

Many farmers diversify into non-agricultural income generation, so they can support themselves even if crops are threatened. Jewellery making, cafes, shops, solar power generation, the possibilities are almost endless.

When crop production declined in Lesotho’s rural Butha-Buthe district due to climate change, the Ha Sefako group started to look into extra ways of earning money. Through income generation training sessions with Send a Cow, the group recognised a huge local business opportunity. Nobody was selling jewellery in the local market, and people who wanted to buy necklaces, bracelets and earrings had to travel to town.

The group decided to learn how to make bead jewellery and went on a training course. They now produce beautiful products which have been a big success at local markets. And they have an income source that isn’t dependent on a successful harvest.

Jami WomenSocial resilience

“Send a Cow taught us three important things: husbands work with children; husbands work with wives; everyone works with their neighbours.”

Jessica Kabwiso is one of 30 members of the Jami Mothers’ Union Group in Budaka, Uganda, which Send a Cow has supported since 2011. Most of our projects have groups like this, where farmers are encouraged to support one another emotionally and practically. If times are hard, this support can make an enormous difference.

Jessica told us how hard her life was before she joined the group. She was totally dependent on her husband, who left her with all the domestic work. Sometimes, rather than eat the crops they grew, she was forced to sell them to buy essentials such as medicines. And their elder children couldn’t go to school because the family couldn’t afford the school fees.

Becoming a member of the group transformed Jessica’s life – and through her, the lives of her entire family. Send a Cow trained Jessica and her husband in sustainable organic agriculture, social development and animal husbandry.

The couple now produce a reliable supply of nutritious food. This means they can eat well, save money (something else the group can help with), start to make improvements to their home (they’ve started with the kitchen), send their children to school, and buy livestock.

Jessica has used some of the money she’s made to install power in the house, meaning that her children can also study at home. Overall her self-esteem has significantly improved, and she now plays an active part at home and in the community. Being part of a group has given her a support network and totally transformed her life.

You can support our work training farmers to become resilient.