What are the most effective ways of encouraging the development of smallholder farming? Diversification, training and working with the private sector are key
More than half a billion Africans are smallholder farmers. In some countries they make up as much as 85% of the population. Even in Africa’s most urbanised countries that figure only drops to 55%.
Smallholders produce 70% of the world’s food, but they are particularly vulnerable to climatic and economic shocks, with many living from one harvest to the next. Poor harvests, or sudden massive price drops, can and do have catastrophic effects. In the wake of ongoing food crises, everyone acknowledges the sector needs developing, the question now is: how?
Marc Pfitzer, a managing director of consulting firm FSG, which works with businesses, nonprofits and governments, says “the consensus is that the more developed a country is, the larger its farms will be”. But he says that it is better “for farmers to gradually consolidate over generations … You can’t shock the system and leapfrog it into plantations because you will end up with massive unemployment.”
The answer, he says, is to intensify and diversify smallholder farms, but for that to happen, investment is needed. “If you want to develop an agricultural country you are going to have to go through a process of investing in smallholder farming. Development will follow over several generations.”
In 2003, African heads of state signed the Maputo Declaration pledging to increase their spending on agriculture development to 10% of their national budgets within five years. Twelve years later, just eight out of over 50 countries have achieved this goal.
So, we know that national governments aren’t stumping up the cash, but what else do smallholder farmers need? And are they getting it? One recent report from Africa Smallholder Farmers Group (ASFG) says that diversification and training are priorities.
Diversification is a high priority because it helps protect smallholders from economic risks, such as market collapses, and helps prevent land degradation. But steps towards achieving diversification are being hampered by governments and businesses that encourage dependency on fertiliser, specify which seeds must be used and encourage farmers to grow a single crop.
ASFG member Find Your Feet (FYF) works in Malawi. Director Dan Taylor says the NGO has a “close working relationship” with the Malawi government which is at once “friendly and quite critical”, because FYF doesn’t agree with the fertiliser subsidy and the Malawian government’s decision to focus on maize.
Taylor says depending on just one crop is a risky strategy in a time of climate change and the fertiliser subsidy is dangerous because it nudges farmers down the route of growing a particular crop, which goes against the need for diversification. Over-reliance on fertiliser is leads to soil degradation, pollution, and lack of adaptability on the part of the farmer. Composting and crop rotation would be better alternatives, Taylor says.
“You could see the Malawian government’s decision to focus solely on maize grown with subsidised fertilisers as modernisation, or you can regard it as a cynical ploy to buy votes, because fertiliser buys votes,” Taylor says.
“Presidents have used the fertiliser subsidy to gain political upmanship. So while there is a commitment to do something about small-scale agriculture, they are short term in their outlook. Rather than giving people subsidies which aren’t continued and are donor-funded, steps should be taken to minimise external inputs.”
Switching from fossil-fuel made, and privately-funded fertiliser inputs, to compost-making is suggested by several NGOs. “We’ve done a lot of work on compost-making as an alternative to fertiliser,” says Taylor. “Compost-making is on the increase, because the government is recognising that it’s not going to be able to afford fertiliser subsidies indefinitely and are quite worried about the potential devastation that climate change is likely to cause in the future.”
But as long they are still handing out free fertiliser, the message is mixed, and that, according to Taylor is “problematic.”
Another factor that can help smallholders is knowledge. Good agricultural education would ensure that farmers were savvy enough to avoid risks. Pfitzer says there is “definitely not enough training available for smallholder farmers” and the quality of some of what is provided is questionable.
Chris Henderson, agricultural lead at Practical Action, said training provided by the governments tends to be unpopular because the civil servants who provide it “are not doing a particularly good job”. Pfitzer is also scathing about the performance of the civil servants who deliver national training projects, and thinks training works best when business gets involved. He says the private sector has a real incentive to deliver training and “will invest because it will increase productivity of the farmer, who will extend his/her services back to the business”. He says this creates “a feedback loop that reinforces the desire of the private sector to provide good training”.
The main obstacle to training is literacy, he says, “so a lot of training has to be farmer-trains-farmer, or it has to be visual, or it has to be co-op-based where people meet and discuss things – you can’t just post out a booklet, or post a text on a website.”
This shows that you can’t tackle the development of smallholder farming without addressing primary education. Pfitzer says that for development hasn’t worked in the past because NGOs worked in silos. “We did a project, we built a school, we built a well, we got some nice technologies – but we never did all of these things at the same time in the same place so we failed.”
He adds that he believes the right approach is “place-based”. He says: “We talk about community and productivity pillars but it goes even beyond that: politics, infrastructure, land rights, ultimately you want all of these things to come together.”
As well as an awareness of place, Pfitzer says that to make a real difference in the development of smallholders, projects need time, and lots of it. “At least a decade because you need at least half a generation to achieve anything.” He says that the private sector is more likely to invest for the long-term than politicians who only think about the next election. “Sustained national leadership is key. We don’t get that from government, but we are getting that from business now because they see that see the long-term view.”
• This article was amended on 13 February 2015. An earlier version said that FSG is an NGO when in fact it is a consulting firm that works with businesses, non-profits and governments.
Source: The Guardian UK