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Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Devil is in the Smallholder Farm

According to Kenya’s Treasury Cabinet Secretary, Henry Rotich, low agricultural productivity is caused by use of inappropriate technology, inaccessible farm inputs, weak extension support services, and over reliance on rain-fed agriculture.

Mr. Rotich’s analysis of the problem of low agricultural productivity reminds me of the Indian fable of the blind men and an elephant. Six blind men were asked to determine what an elephant looked like by feeling different parts of the elephant’s body. The one who felt the tail said the elephant is like a rope; the one who felt the trunk said the elephant is like a tree branch; the one who felt the leg said the elephant was like a pillar; the one who felt the ear said the elephant was like a hand fan; the one who felt the belly said the elephant was like a wall; the one who held the tusk said the elephant was like a solid pipe.

Based on the counsel of “four blind men” Kenyan taxpayers will spend Ksh. 245 billion to improve agricultural productivity over the next five years. The fable of the elephant and the reductionist diagnosis of what ails Kenya’s agriculture exemplify the relativism, the hubris of experts and a lack of integrative systemic thinking around complex public policy questions. As experts, often woefully narrowly trained in our respective disciplines, we fail to admit that what we observe is not reality, but slivers of reality that submit to our constrained methods of inquiry.

Mr. Rotich’s spending plan to revitalize Kenya’s agriculture is not novel. Based on the same premises, Tanzania launched Kilimo Kwanza, its green revolution to transform agriculture in 2009. A recent review of implementation of Kilimo Kwanza has revealed fundamental failures. The growth rate of Tanzania’s agricultural sector was only 3.63% in 2012, significantly below the 6% target set by the Agricultural Sector Development Strategy. Tanzanian scholars argue that Kilimo Kwanza has marginalized small-scale farmers. According to the 2011 Tanzanian Human Rights Report, 67.6% of farmers interviewed reported that they had not benefited from Kilimo Kwanza. Kenya can and must learn from Tanzania’s experience.

I have worked in the field of agriculture for over two decades. I now believe that improving agricultural productivity is a “wicked”, “untamed” problem. It is one of the most dynamically complex, ill-structured public policy problems. Agricultural productivity is influenced by a legion of complex and dynamic, often connected, social, institutional, political and biophysical factors, including climate. Often, what we think are causes of low agricultural productivity such as use of inappropriate technology or inaccessible farm inputs are symptoms of other deep structural problems.

The New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition (New Alliance) was launched in 2012 under the US G8 Presidency to lift 50 million people out of poverty by 2022. The New Alliance seeks to mobilize responsible private sector investment in agriculture in Africa. So far, Benin, Burkina Faso, Cote D’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Ghana, Tanzania, Malawi, Mozambique and Nigeria have joined the New Alliance. The New Alliance works closely with the Grow Africa partnership, the African Union, New Partnership for Africa’s Development and the World Economic Forum.

In my view, the New Alliance is a blind man holding a part of the elephant that is Africa’s low agricultural productivity problem. And the New Alliance says it feels like a lack of huge private sector investment. When they meet this week at Lough Erne in Northern Ireland, the G8 must be reminded that private sector investment in Africa’s agriculture will not be responsible or sustainable.

The New Alliance is prioritizing unfettered access to Africa’s land resources for multinational companies. The New Alliance cooperation framework is unnerving. For instance, the framework actions for Ethiopia require that the government incentivize international seed companies to operate in Ethiopian seed markets and refine the law to encourage long-term leasing.

Large-scale agriculture with a focus on industrial production models is highly destructive of the natural capital and allied ecosystem services. Furthermore, large agricultural estates covering millions of hectares give too much power and influence to agro-industry at the expense of smallholder producers. Invariably, private sector investments will target international export markets with little commitment to local food and nutritional security goals.

The approach of the New Alliance and Mr. Rotich’s plan are limited tactile abstractions. However, how they engage with and support smallholder farm families’ transition to commercially viable operations could have a huge impact on poverty, food and nutritional security. The devil is in the smallholder farm households.

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