Africa / Agriculture / Farming Systems / Fish / ILRI / Livelihoods / Livestock / LIVESTOCKFISH / Research

Can smallholder farmers feed a growing Africa?—Yes, under the right conditions


Peter Karanja sells eggs in Nairobi (credit: ILRI / Mann)

Intense proposal development work by the 15 centres of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) and their many research partners is coming down to the wire this month, with the deadline for submitting these proposals, 1 September 2010, fast approaching.

The proposals are for new, large, multi-institutional research programs to tackle some of the most pressing issues of the day in the areas of food security, human health, poverty reduction and sustainable development.

One of the proposals under development focuses on enhancing livelihoods of the poor through improved production and marketing of livestock and fish and better integration of such animal husbandry with crop farming. Scientific groups at the Africa-based International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) leading the development of this proposal have been thinking hard about the conditions under which smallholder livestock development can be accelerated, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

Among the publications the ILRI team is reviewing in this work is an interesting working paper (No. 08) published by the Future Agricultures Consortium: Can the smallholder model deliver poverty reduction and food security for a rapidly growing population in Africa? The author, Steve Wiggins, argues that, counter to what many experts today are thinking and advising, large-scale farming is not always technically or financially the better option for African agricultural development.

Copied below are what Wiggins sees as the conditions that make African smallholder development possible.

Conditions for smallholder development

The record shows that smallholder development has delivered agricultural growth in various places and at various times, and that growth is not always sustained. What, then, are the conditions under which smallholder development is possible? These are well known. They include:

1. A favourable investment climate for farming. Critical here is a level playing field, that is that farmers can buy inputs, access finance and sell their produce on something like neutral terms in which they are not exorbitantly taxed by domestic policy, albeit implicitly, or having to compete with dumped food imports, or exporting to markets where prices have been depressed by the policies of OECD countries. A comparison of agricultural growth in Africa between the 1970s and 1980s, the former decade one of heavy negative protection of many farm sectors that eased during the 1980s, shows just how important negative protection can be.12 It also implies that farmers can trade with relatively low transaction costs and are not exploited by agencies with monopoly power.

2. Investment in public goods that support agriculture, most notably agricultural research and extension, rural roads, education, health care, and , in some cases, irrigation and power supplies. It is probably not so much the amount that is spent by governments on agriculture, so much as on what is funded that counts: returns to spending on public goods seem to be high, while those to private goods may be lower.

3. Developing economic institutions to allocate and protect property rights, to facilitate trading, to reduce risk and to allow collective action. This is a challenging agenda: in the absence of effective institutions market failures arise that ultimately prevent investment and deter innovation and initiative.

These first three elements might be seen as the public agenda. In addition to which there is another condition:

4. The existence of demand that is transmitted effectively to the farm gate. Reviewing studies of agricultural development at village and district level in the 1970s and 1980s, the single main factor that stimulated spurts in agricultural growth appeared to be demand felt at the farm gate (Wiggins 1995, 2000). That demand arose variously from urban growth domestically, from linking farmers to these markets by better roads; or from parastatals offering farmers in remote areas pan-territorial prices that discounted the cost of transport.

To these may be added a fifth condition:

5. That farmers conserve their land, water and other natural resources so that physical production can be sustained.

It easy enough to specify these conditions, but the record of disappointments in African agriculture over the last thirty or more years shows that meeting them is no simple exercise. Problems arise in low-income countries where public resources are limited and the range of apparently necessary investments is wide, exceeding any imaginable budget. In such cases, there are difficult strategic decisions to be made about the combination and sequences of policy and investments to follow; for which there is relatively little guidance in the literature. But matters have sometimes been made worse by misguided policy and poor governance.

. . . [This paper argues that] smallholder development requires certain conditions, and that — demanding as they may be — history suggests that they have been sufficiently met at various times and places for vigorous agricultural growth to occur.

Read the whole FAC Working Paper No. 08 (2009) online at:

One thought on “Can smallholder farmers feed a growing Africa?—Yes, under the right conditions

  1. I note that Steve Wiggins says in his working paper for Future Agricultures Consortium that no one expects all smallholders to develop together. Rather, only the most advantaged quarter of smallholder farmers are expected, even under the right conditions, to make a go of commercial farming. Thus the need to work on several rural development fronts at the same time: (1) to ensure that once smallholder development takes off, it stimulates jobs and other rural sectors and (2) to provide safety nets for those unable to participate in / profit from smallholder gains.

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