By Rob Burdick, Executive Director, Tillers International.  Photo above from Tillers International facebook page.

Three hundred farm families in Mozambique could be given the opportunity this year to begin lifting themselves out of poverty and food insecurity with dignified farm work using animal traction. For only $400 per family, we can provide four weeks of effective assistance in training oxen to work calmly in the yoke and in the use of simple but efficient tools and systems to increase crop yield per hour of labor while preserving the integrity of the soil and the dignity of the farm family.

Research done in the course of our work with USAID’s Sustainable Intensification Innovation Laboratory’s (SIIL) Appropriate Scale Mechanization Consortium (ASMC) in West Africa has shown that simple ox or donkey-drawn planters and weeders can reduce labor demands per acre of cropland from 20 persons per day to two while simultaneously improving the consistency of germination and reducing crop loss to birds, drought, and minor flooding.

We don’t yet have precise data from Mozambique, but our observations suggest that labor conditions are broadly similar to those in the Western African country of Burkina Faso even if climate and soil are not. In Burkina Faso, the labor for these tasks is overwhelmingly provided by women and children from poorer families who prioritize this paid labor at the expense of their own subsistence crops. This labor challenge means that the poorest families plant their fields last and face the greatest risks of crop failure due to rainfall patterns, damaged seeds, or infestations.

Tillers International is seeking $120,000 this year to provide 300 farm families an opportunity to increase their yields, send their children to school, and reduce the drudgery of farming entirely by hand. We have an experienced team of trainers, drivers, and other logistics positions who can start as soon as we can pay them. We have commitments from two very generous individuals to match the first $40,000 of contributions if we can reach the full cost of $120,000. With their match, your $200 contribution is matched by their match to provide the full cost of one family’s training, the impact of your money is doubled.

Why Mozambique?

The majority of food in Mozambique is grown by smallholder farmers using basic hand hoes. Tillage, planting, and weeding require an extraordinary amount of time and labor for staple crops like maize or beans and most farmers have few options available to reduce the workload or drudgery. Cattle and donkeys are commonly kept but underused as draft animals. Two of the major impediments to greater adoption of animal power are limited access to training for both oxen and farmers and limited availability or high cost of animal-drawn implements. Undertrained animals cannot reliably perform precision tasks like cultivation, leading many farmers to continue these tasks manually rather than investing in newer technologies.

Wars for independence and subsequent civil wars set all farming back for a generation or more in many countries. In Mozambique, a violent civil war erupted almost immediately following independence from Portugal in 1975. That civil war would last until 1992 and the scars of the conflict are still seen today. Land mines and destroyed bridges and homes littered the landscape well into the 2000s.

Thanks to the heroic and diligent work of groups from the United Nations and organizations like HALO trust, it has been safe to farm in most of the more fertile regions for a decade or more. Mozambique’s recovery has been unsteady with brief periods of great growth and disastrous hurricanes. Armed conflict in the North of Mozambique has only grown more dangerous as poor families are continually discouraged by low yields and crop failures exacerbated by unpredictable weather and limited resources. As we have seen in our own struggling cities and towns where there is a lack of opportunity to thrive through honest labor people will seek any available means to feed their families.

Why Tillers International?

Tillers International has provided low-stress training of oxen to farmers in over 15 countries since it was founded in 1981. In many African countries, including Mozambique and Uganda where we have worked extensively, animal power has only been a viable option since veterinary advances of the 1960s made it possible to control sleeping sickness and a range of tick-borne diseases.

Since 2009 Tillers International has operated the Center for Animal Traction in Manica Province, Mozambique, or CENTAM. Under three successive contracts funded by the US Department of Agriculture’s Food for Progress Initiative, over 20,000 farmers were trained in the effective use of oxen for improved food security. A further 3,000 artisans were trained in the manufacture and repair of low-cost farm equipment including planters, weeders, and forage choppers. This year as the pandemic brought everything to a halt the funding for this project and the CENTAM stopped.

We have continued some training efforts at the CENTAM both for students of the Manica Polytechnic Institute (ISPM) where the facility is housed and for nearby dairy farmers in their villages. The need for improvements in agricultural technologies, systems, and education is growing daily as economic and climate pressures make farming and the importation of goods less predictable. The overall cost of this training center and staff is relatively low but far exceeds what Tillers International can afford alone.

How will we know that well-trained oxen are improving lives?

Effective and innovative animal power is a force multiplier for the farm family, the local artisans, and the regional economy. In West Africa, we have found that an animal-drawn planter can empower two people to do the work of 20 in the same amount of time with greater precision, more consistent planting depth, and improved yields. Similarly, small changes in weeder design have allowed us to increase the effective width per pass by 20% while reducing the power requirement by 20%, and more effectively killing weeds without the use of chemical herbicides. These advances may sound small and simple, yet they have far-reaching impacts, particularly for women and children who provide most of the labor for planting and weeding in addition to all of the tasks around the home.

With your help, we will provide training in animal power and conservation agriculture for 300 farm families this year in Mozambique. The focus on a relatively small number of farm families will allow us to provide more extensive support, bring in newly developed technologies from our involvement in the Appropriate Scale Mechanization Consortium in West Africa, and closely study the impact of the practices and equipment on-farm efficiency in Mozambique. This detailed information will improve our understanding of where the greatest gains can be had in agricultural innovation and quantify the successes and needed improvements from our work. This research will add greater value to this and future projects seeking to use animal power to improve food security as we will be able to put numbers to the benefits that we have seen in the field.

What exactly will this training look like?

We start with a two-week-long training (in their home villages, with their own animals) which will enable them to train their existing oxen and future teams as well as build better fitting yokes and other harnessing components. Our experienced trainers work with the farmers to get their cattle calm enough to be safely worked and to understand and identify signs of discomfort, insufficient feeding, fear, or other issues that might cause misbehavior. By the end of the first week, the farmers will have made a well-fitted yoke and rope halters for their team and the cattle will generally be ready to train. The second week is much like the oxen basics class we teach in Michigan with calves rather than grown steers or bulls. Farmers and their oxen will learn to use three basic forms of communication; body position, whip or goad as an indicator rather than a punishment, and finally voice commands. By the end of the second week, the oxen should be ready for plowing.

The following two weeks will vary depending on the needs of the farmers. Generally, we will provide a one-week training on minimum tillage tools and practices with some refinement of animal handling skills. The remaining week is typically spent in forage and pasture management and basic ruminant nutrition. This training covers hay and silage making as well as foraging for locally available sources of protein and simple guidelines to ensure the animals are receiving a sufficiently balanced diet for the additional needs of oxen over ranging cattle. This training allows farmers to keep oxen closer to the home during the working season and collect manure for vegetable gardens, improve the precision of the animals in the field, and serves as a stepping stone should they wish to move into livestock fattening or dairy production.

What can you do to help?

The total cost of this project will be around $120,000 for this year including facilities rent, eight full-time staff members and several part-time trainers in Mozambique, and US-based staff time to develop new technologies and methods to evaluate effectiveness. The value of the research to future work in helping farmers lift themselves out of poverty is great. The direct benefit of this project to the 300 farm families will far outweigh the cost of $400 per family for training and support.

Without the fundamental steps of effective animal training and well-fitted harnessing, small-scale farmers cannot profitably adopt time and labor-saving implements to increase their yields. We are blessed here in the US with generations of efficient animal traction and with reliable and affordable supply chains to support implements and small tractors. Each generation has adapted, innovated, and improved upon the existing technology to make food production in the US and in Europe more secure and more efficient than ever before. The lack of an effective source of farm power has prevented poor farmers in Mozambique, and in much of Africa, from sharing in the advantages of these innovations in agriculture.

Even a few dollars mean twice as much with our donor match. This has been a tough year for everyone and I understand if you are not in a position to contribute directly. If you could pass this opportunity along to a friend, a neighbor, or anyone else you know who might be inclined to support giving farmers the foundational tools to help themselves out of poverty, we could all benefit from a larger community.

I hope you will join in laying solid foundations for farm families in Mozambique and a better understanding of how we can most effectively help them to flourish. If you have further questions or wish to make a contribution I would love to hear from you.


Rob Burdick, Executive Director, Tillers International

How We Use Historic Farming Tools and Practical Skills to Help Small-Scale Farmers Around the World

Tillers International uses traditional practical skills and historic American farming tools and methods to help small-scale farmers in developing countries where tractors are not an option. We teach variants of those skills (blacksmithing, woodworking, timber framing, barrel making, draft animal handling, etc.) at our school of practical skills in West Michigan, USA, to help support our mission.

Learn how you can help support us at