Africa Smallholder Farmers: Problem and Market solutions and more

Africa Smallholder farmers The agriculture sector in Africa is experiencing a shift from being seen as a philanthropic or social sector to one that is a business. This statement was made by the President of the East Africa Farmers Federation, Philip Kiroro at the Panel Session at the World Economic Forum on Africa. At the G8 summit, that was held a couple of year back, world leaders too spoke in the same vein. The then British Prime Minister David Cameron emphasized the trade aspect of African agriculture, saying that ““An Africa that can trade will be a lion of global growth”. While improvement of agricultural interventions at the ground is definitely the base on which trade models should be conceived, it nevertheless means that job creation in agriculture in Africa will be a win-win situation, which ensures food security on the one hand, while also ending Africa’s dependency on foreign aid.

The keyword here, therefore, is trade – and marketing of agricultural produce. Marketing is a crucial chain in the link that ultimately makes the farmer profitable. Again, with regard to marketing models and interventions, there are always some interventions and partnerships that are more successful than others. The interventions become successful when smallholder farmers are included and benefit from agricultural programs along the value chain.

There were three major studies that were carried out to examine and understand the link between smallholder farmers and the market. They provided a series of recommendations for donors, policymakers and development practitioners for future action. Together, these reports outline a series of priority areas to be addressed for markets to work better for smallholders.

These studies reinforced the fact that smallholder farmers first and foremost need access to inputs, finance, credit, storage and professional advice. They should also be able to institutionalize and organize themselves in such a way as to benefit from economies of scale. They must have market information related to standards, prices, risk management and enterprise skills. The public sector too would have to invest in rural infrastructure, agricultural research and extension. From the side of policy, agricultural policies should refrain from sudden shifts, weak contract enforcement and restrictive trade flows. These studies also documented a series of success stories as a result of innovative market solutions. Let’s take a look at some of these examples.

In the arena of seed quality, the Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN) conducted a Harmonized Seed Security Program (HASSP) in four countries in Africa – aligning national seed policies and developing the capacity of smallholder farmers to produce quality seeds. Another agency called Twin has been working in the arena of food safety with Malawian smallholder groundnut farmers to prevent contamination from aflotoxin – a carcinogenic mould which cause serious public health impacts. This program used education modules and provided proper storage techniques, infrastructure investment and simple technologies. Another agency, Farm Africa, has created a new franchisee business to deliver products for livestock in Kenya. This agency has 32 franchises through which farmers can access affordable, quality inputs and technical advice, particularly in remote locations. Another fund called ‘One acre fund’ helps smallholder farmer ‘clients’ to access affordable seed and fertilizer in the right amount by buying these inputs in bulk and distributing them closer to where farmers live and offering credit until harvest time. Another program called SNV works with Zimbabwean agro-dealers to restock their supplies and help them with distribution to more rural areas. To connect smallholders to export markets, Self Help Africa is working with mango farmers in Malawi and cashew farmers in Benin to improve production and further process their harvests to improve their incomes.

While these are success stories, they are rather scattered and do not depict the basic nature of the market, which is usually prone to much inequality and discrepancy. Some of the issues that must be kept in mind while coming up with market-based solutions are that when it comes to smallholder farmers, one size doesn’t fit all. Many cannot reach the market at all, and these are the ones who need safety nets. Since contexts are different too, a standard, uniform model cannot be projected everywhere. So whenever there is scope of scaling up an intervention, it’s important that it must simultaneously be adapted to different agro-ecological zones and socio-economic conditions. Also, we must understand that crop markets are often unequally developed. For example, cocoa, being a high-value cash crop, attracts more investment than cereal crops, and yet cereal crops are the ones critical to survival and subsistence and therefore needs a stimulus too. Much has already been talked about the situation of the smallholder farmer: that they produce 70 per cent of the world’s food, but are most vulnerable to shocks due to climate change and market fluctuations. Considering all the research that has been done in this sector, it is clear that diversification of farm produce and training of farmers should be the key priorities. Diversification protects small farmers from economic risks like a market collapse. It also prevents land degradation that happens from mono-cropping. Such diversification has so far been difficult to achieve because it is usually governments, seed companies and fertilizer companies who impose their agenda on the farmer about what to grow, and often pushes the farmer into mono-cropping. In the current scenario of climate change, mono-cropping is all the more risky. The result of all of these situations is that the farmers’ output is far below their potential. With better access to finance, better seeds and fertile soil, reliable markets and secure access to land, their output can be much higher. Part of this lies in the hands of Africa’s policy makers, and will show positive effect if they extend supportive policies. When Africa’s small farmers prosper, Africa and the world can prosper too, for agriculture is the surest way by which the world can give African farmers a livelihood, income and healthy diets. For evidence of how vital agriculture is, a research by the FAO of the United Nations shows that growth in Sub-Saharan Africa’s agriculture sector is 11 times than growth in other sectors.

Access to knowledge is the other key factor that can make all the difference. One researcher who spent time documenting case studies of smallholder farmers came across two starkly different cases in the same agro-climatic zone. One was a smallholder farmer whose maize crop was practically wilting as a result of late monsoon. The other was a retired military officer-turned farmer who maize crop was already yielding cobs in a span of 45 days after planting. He attributed the healthy crop to improved seeds and access to knowledge. So knowledge makes all the difference. It is such knowledge that needs to flow to smallholder farmers as well.