There is what is hip in just about every sphere of life. It is not surprising that even in development policy there a “flavor of the day” just like soup of the day at a lunch counter. After two decades in the doldrums, agriculture is back in vogue
At the food summit in
Attention shifted away from agriculture partly because making it work seemed such an improbable mission. Agricultural development models were founded on on egotistical state-backed schemes like the attempt at large scale irrigation schemes or Mwalimu Nyerere’s Ujamaa villages. At the same time, traditional forms of land ownership seemed to constrain attempts at rationalizing land use and agricultural production.
In his book Starved for Science, Robert Paarlberg, a leading scholar on smallholder agricultural development in Africa attributes withdrawal of donor support for modern agricultural science in Africa plus outright opposition to new farm science on the part of global pressure groups has contributed directly to hunger and deepening poverty.
There are good reasons to expect agricultural growth to reduce poverty. Agricultural development raises returns to land, the only real asset that the many rural poor in
But African agriculture is not an irredeemable disaster. It has great promise. According to the latest UN report agriculture contributes at least 40% of exports, 30% of GDP up to 30% of foreign exchange earnings, and 70 to 80% of employment.
Therefore, targeted investments in food production and high value market-led produce should pay off both in terms of food security at a time of soaring food prices, and in terms of household income and national economic development. The debate now focuses on where that investment should go.
At the dawn of the 21st century there are big players with deep pockets: there is the
Past agrarian revolutions proceeded through land reforms, culminating in displacement of people from the land. Larger farm holdings mean economies of scale and high productivity and hence better returns on investment
There are voices urging a similar approach in
But most African governments are deeply suspicious of any move that aggregates small land holdings takes people off the land. The critical failure of other sectors of the economy to grow means there are few alternative jobs for the landless. The destabilizing effects of a jobless populace living in slum towns in both inner city and on the outskirts of major urban centres capital cities are all too familiar is worrisome.
In many parts of Africa, especially
The challenge therefore is how to increase productivity among subsistence smallholder farmers. The opportunity and innovation lies in the role of policy, technology, research support and institutional arrangements that can aggregate production of small farm rather aggregating the land resource base. My sense is that traditional focus on large holdings as a pre-requisite for modernization and profitability of African agriculture is misplaced. In
Market-oriented production of high value crops through contract farming can enlist a strong network of smallholder farmers. Contract farming can expedite technology transfer, capital inflows and provide assured markets.
Contract farming can be defined as a system for the production and supply of agricultural produce under forward contracts between producers or suppliers and buyers. The essence of such an arrangement is the commitment of the producer to provide produce of a particular type, over a period and at an agreed price, and in the quality required by a known and committed buyer.
Renewed attention on African agriculture carries an inordinate risk of hailing tired ideas and presenting false choices for instance, large vs. small scale, biotechnology vs. organic, input credit vs. large foreign capital, indigenous technical knowledge vs. new farm science. In my view progress in African agriculture will depend on active private sector participation that enable smallholder farmers gain access high quality inputs, research and extension support as well as assured lucrative regional and international markets.
Ultimately for smallholder African farmers, the future of African agriculture will be determined by the household balance sheet. What model works or does not work will be determined by the farmers check book.