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The changing face of Eastern and Southern African agriculture: from subsistence to commercial enterprises

Are we ready to meet the world’s  increasing food demand over the coming decades? Some people are doubtful of how we are going to feed 2.4 billion more people when no extra land is available and degradation of existing farmland is widespread. On the other side there are those claiming that, even though we see food crises arise from time to time, it will be easier to produce the food in the coming four decades compared to the previous four. Improved technologies, and market access combined with traditional knowledge of sustainable cultivation are often mentioned as strategies forward.

Africa is a continent with a huge untapped agricultural potential. Sustainable intensification, an approach to agricultural production which is about maintaining high productivity without impoverishing soils and other ecosystem services, is often mentioned as a way to unfold Africa’s agricultural potential.

If successful, this approach could bring great advantages to smallholder farmers in Africa, supporting the soils stressed from drought, deforestation and unsustainable farming practices. It is clear, however, that transforming African smallholders from subsistence to commercialization would require more than just a new approach to farming. Extension services, technology transfers to rural areas and access to markets are suggested as methods for creating commercial farms.  However, the first thing to talk about when discussing transformation of African agriculture is the smallholder farmer.

Re-shape our image of smallholder farmers

Africa is the continent with the largest number of small and rural farms in the world, and when discussing agricultural policies in Africa one often speaks about the possibilities to scale-up and intensify production for smallholder farmers.. But what do we mean by the term “smallholder” and what attributes do we attach to the people under this definition? Do all smallholder farmers want to be commercial farmers?

Catherine Komugisha Tindiwensi, a PhD student and lecturer at the Makerere University Business School argues that it is a mistake to put farmers with relatively small farms and resources into one group. “We tend to think of smallholder farmers as a homogenous group with the common ambition to grow food for their own needs as well as for national and international markets. This does not correspond to the reality”, said Tindiwensi.

Her research shows that farmers with relatively small farms have very different ambitions of what they want to do with their land. Some are happy maintaining subsistence farming, while entrepreneurial farmers want to sell their products to local, regional and international markets. “We need to distinguish between these two categories of farmers; otherwise we risk having misguiding policies.”

Don’t underinvest in extension services

Once we understand that different smallholder farmers have different ambitions we could go on to ask the question: How can we assist entrepreneurial farmers in building commercial businesses? And likewise, how can we support those farmers who want to remain at subsistence level?

The most straightforward way to implement change-oriented projects in agriculture is through training of farmers at the farm and within local communities, which is done by NGOs or via government extension services. Ngolia Kimanzu, who is a community development adviser for Water, Sanitation, Hygiene and Food Security Programme at the Salvation Army, shared experience from his work with agricultural extension services in Malawi and Kenya: “Even though in some countries trust to governments can be low, many governments are positive towards being the agents of change. Ideally, extension services should be done by many actors, but if NGOs and private sector show no interest in doing so, then governments need to take the responsibility.”

In its turn, training farmers on up-to-date production strategies can improve agricultural efficiency. Ylva Ran, Research Associate at Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) talked about ways to assess the environmental impacts of livestock production in Tanzania. Livestock production systems are commonly associated with a number of environmental impacts such as soil erosion, greenhouse gas emissions, and water use and biodiversity threats. A key challenge facing African smallholders is livestock feeding inefficiencies resulting in poor productivity and high emissions of greenhouse gases. Ex-ante assessments of potential environmental impact are required to ensure increased small-holder efficiency as well as reduced environmental impact. “Reducing environmental impact from livestock production systems is complex and African farmers and other actors in the livestock value chain need support, training and increased knowledge to identify potential areas of concern in the near-by future as well as in the long-term perspective”, commented Ran.

Create added value and build connections

Becoming a commercial farmer requires a number of pre-conditions: technical equipment, knowledge, financing capital, human capital, and access to markets. Mats Stading from the Technical research institute SP, works with advising companies on how to connect and adapt to international markets. Stading emphasizes that improving farmers’ access to markets requires active presence of actors from both private and public sectors.

Another crucial factor for better market opportunities for small-scale farmers in the region is agro- processing and development of value chains to create a stable demand and market opportunities for small-scale farmers in the region. Adding value to farm produce is key for making agriculture profitable, the example of prices for 1 kilo of potatoes vs 1 kilo potato chips illustrates it quite well. Encouragingly enough, the African agro-processing sector is showing signs of growth and expansion, not least manifested by the growing brewery sector in the region.

“There is a mutual interest – from both an African and a European perspective – to have new grains and new products on a European market”, notes Stading. “It is true that commercialization of traditional African crops, such as millet, teff and sorghum, can drive up prices in local markets, where these products are traded and consumed. There are no clear solution to this, the best strategy is to have a “slow” development so both markets and producers can adapt to a shifting demand.”

Access to land

Access to markets and improved agricultural techniques are beneficial, but aren’t sustainable if farmers do not have secured long-term access to land. A number of case studies presented by Laura Saxer, Lasse Krantz and Emmanuel Muyombano from the University of Gothenburg, Atenchong Talleh Nkoboul from the University of Hohenheim, and Atakilte Beyene from the Nordic Africa Institute illustrated land tenure reforms in Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda and Mozambique and their effect on local farmers.

Land tenure issues are hard to avoid in the future food scenarios, particularly in regards to large-scale land investments which, judging by the evidence from the case studies, have impact on local food production. Well-tailored and customized tenure rights systems can facilitate local food security and open up possibilities for commercialization of agriculture; vague and messy tenure right systems made without a long term perspective on agricultural development can lead to stagnation and decay.

The farmer of tomorrow

Who will farm in the future? It has been estimated that the average age of a Kenyan farmer is 64 years, and the profession is in great need of recruiting a new generation of farmers to secure future food production. Most of the young people become farmers by inheriting the land and profession from their family.

However, heavy work and high risk in combination with a rapid urbanization and a unattractive image of “farming” push young people away from the agricultural sector. This is to some degree a lifestyle choice – communication and culture in the global era spur dreams of a future in the city. But it is also about failing to make farming a more profitable, secure and attractive career. It is key to incentivize young farmers so they choose a career in farming instead of investing their skills in other professions.

Whether one is a pessimist or an optimist about how we can meet the world’s future food demand, it should be agreed that there is a range of challenges to be dealt with. Issues concerning increased and sustainable food production, improved food value chains, and farmers’ access to land and markets are areas where progress can be made in the context of Eastern and Southern African agriculture.

This article is based on the session “Transforming subsistence farming into commercial enterprises: the changing face of Eastern and Southern African agriculture” at the Agriculture for Development Conference at SLU in Uppsala, September 23rd.