Small Farm / Big Farm

maize_smallholderDebates on the scale of farming are back on the agenda. In a number of recent articles, Professor Paul Collier, author of ‘The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can be Done About It’, made the case (see Position 1 below) for encouraging large-scale commercial farming as way to get African farming moving. Favouring small farmers, he argues, is romantic but unhelpful.

During 2008 there have been many reports of private companies in the North and state corporations in the South reacting to the opportunity and threat of higher food prices by planning to acquire land in Africa, South-east Asia, Brazil and Central Asia to produce food.

The most startling of these announcements is that of the Daewoo Corporation of the Republic of Korea that revealed that it was acquiring the rights to farm no less than 1.3 million hectares of Madagascar, a position from which the company and the government have now backed away from following a storm of local and international protest. In many cases the reports suggest that the aim is to farm the land on a large scale, rather than to contract production through existing family smallholdings.

It is now more than three years since IFPRI, Imperial College, and ODI organised a workshop at Wye for specialists to debate the issues surrounding small farms. It looks to be time to revisit those arguments in the light of higher food prices, the arguments being made for large-scale farming and apparent intent of capital-rich investors.

To start the debate, a reply to Professor Collier was drafted by Steve Wiggins (Position 2) who argued that that large farms in Africa are unnecessary, have had their failures in the past, and carry significant risks; and that if additional food is needed, then small farmers — given the right conditions — can do the job. They have in the past and there is no reason to imagine that they cannot do so again.

FAC invited contributions to the debate that responded to the points made in the two position papers or the suggested themes listed below:

1) Small and large farms: definitions, trends and patterns
2) Small and large farms: environmental, livelihood and food security costs and benefits
3) Farm scale, economic efficiency and competitiveness
4) Agriculture policies: agri-business, rural areas, food quality and safety


Latest articles

Toyin Kolawole
February 1, 2010 / Small Farm / Big Farm

The current discussion on ‘Making science and technology work for small-scale farmers’ is closely linked with the earlier debate on the appropriateness of farmers’ voices in the African Green Revolution [AGR] initiative. Essentially, the thinking of agricultural scientists and technologists will be more effectively put to use if they align with those of the smallholder farmer. As I had earlier indicated, there is the need to revisit and strengthen Research-Extension-Farmer linkage if the dream of realising a sustainable AGR is to be achieved. There are a lot of lessons to learn [either way] in the process of a 2-way information sharing within the linkage system.

Technologies that are patterned in line with the taste and capability [in terms of finance and usability] of small farmers will undoubtedly work for the purpose for which they are designed. Sincere and thorough farmer consultations by the researcher/technologist will, therefore, be needed in the design and development of any technologies aimed at bringing about an agrarian change amidst the small-holders. Aside some field experience acquired over the years, Everett M. Rogers diffusion studies have shown that innovations that are: feasible; compatible [with farmer’s socio-cultural milieu]; cost effective; socially and economically advantageous; divisible; simple [to use]; and ‘triable'[in bits] are always popular amongst the end-users, all things being equal. Previous investigations conducted by us have also shown that technologies or innovations that are [environmentally and farmer] user-friendly and result effective are an answer to farmers’ yearnings and aspirations.Considering all the above innovation characteristics in the process of technology development for the small farmer will be worth the effort of the researcher after all.

Wolfgang Bayer
January 25, 2010 / Small Farm / Big Farm

One thing that is missing in the contributions I saw thus far, are definitions of large farms or small farms. 25 years ago I was in Australia and found interesting statistics for Australian conditions of course. To gain an income from farming equal to average national income a beef farmer in the North needed 100 km² of land or 1000 head of beef cattle. A sugar cane farmer needed 50 ha and a farmer growing green pepper 1 ha . Things have surely changed in the mean time and Africa is not Australia, yet looking at income potential instead of at size might be a useful way of looking at farming.

Small farms (and smallholding) do have a very important role as safety net in times of crisis – and the size can range from little more than an allotment garden to a few hectares. This safety function in times of crisis was in the past very important in Europe e.g. during and after WW II, and was also important in Eastern Europe after the collapse of the communism (and the economy). And smallholder farming received very little research and development support, because the farm models that research worked for was not a small farm. For outsiders it is tedious to try to understand small holder farming, and it is also tedious to re-orient research (which holds far fewer benefits for agro-industrial  companies than do large farms) to small holder farming. Definitely smallholder farms are not simply large farms at a scale of 1:100 or so,  and therefore large farms ma not be able to provide many services for small holders. We also should look a small holder farms from another angle: in many African countries 60 or more %of the population still rely to a larger or smaller degree on agriculture for their livelihood. Definitely there is nothing romantic about it – smallholder farming can be very hard work, indeed. However, at present it is needed also for social security. What is needed as agricultural revolution in Africa is research and development that is pro smallholders that also takes into account the dynamics of smallholder farming, and this also has to take in institutional and regulatory systems, and at times even concepts such as varieties in plants and breeds in animals, because they may mean something different in smallholder agriculture than for large, so-called commercial farms.

Wolfgang Bayer, Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation

Stephen (Esteban) Bartlett
January 25, 2010 / Small Farm / Big Farm

A very important topic and distinction.  It is precisely the scale of production and the respective models that accompany either small or large farms, that determines the social and economic character of agriculture, its ecological sustainability (ie how it maintains soil fertility), and its usefulness as a shield against hunger for the many.

Very simply put, small farms are necessary in order to end hunger.  80% of hungry people worldwide are rural people or rural migrants whose land holdings or economic or social infrastructure are insufficient to produce an income that can feed, clothe and educate their families.  This is a result of land concentration into fewer hands, ie larger farms.

The green revolution may have increased yields in certain grain crops for those able to take advantage, that is, those with capital to spend on seeds, chemical fertilizers and pesticides.  But social inequalities widened, and ecological limits came to bear, ie the law of diminishing returns came to bear on increasing uses of pesticides as resistances built up, soil lost its natural fertility (due to lack of organic material being returned), etc… Lands became concentrated into fewer hands due to the industrial model.

Studies have shown that, the world over, on average the smaller the farms are, the more productive they are in overall calories per acre.  We are not talking about the yields of large scale monocultures, but of a diversity of crops and animals raised in given areas.  ( Peter Rosset)

Regarding GMO seeds, it is now widely known that their main function is to make large scale monocultures easier (more convenient) to produce, through the use of herbicides sprayed over the crop, that the plant can withstand.  Overall yields of GMOs have been shown to be below those of the best hybrid or even open-pollinated varieties of the major grains and oilseeds.  Conventionally grown hybrid grain crops continue to out-produce GMO crops.

Finally, the argument that large farms of “efficient” monocultures (“efficient only in the sense of how much food each farmer can produce, but not how much can be produced sustainably, or even economically, on a given piece of land) are needed in order to combat hunger is completely false.  If rural peoples are to feed themselves, farms necessarily need to be smaller, so that living wage employment is more widely distributed and small-scale farmers have the means to grow their own foods, plus surpluses to sell.  It is the lack of support on the part of governments and the international financial institutions that imposed harmful conditionalities for decades now (including the de-funding of grain reserves!) for small-scale farming that has marginalized that sector, not any inherent inefficiency in that way of life or that scale of production.

Once small farmers organize themselves into cooperatives, the small scale of their individual farm holdings becomes irrelevant.  Their closer attention to the soil, their use of diverse plantings, their use of animal manures and other green manures, and their attention to micro climate through maintenance of wood lots, etc..for the domestic products forests supply, including medicines, all make small farms more effective in addressing economic impoverishment, in slowing or reversing the rural exodus to the cities, and in providing the community necessary to maintain a resilient rural culture.

It is likely that if you argue otherwise, your bread might very well be buttered in some way by the status quo of corporate, industrial-scale production, or some academic institution that thrives off the spouting of cleverly worded abstractions in the interest of capturing “research”
funding.  The debate over small versus large farms is really a debate about corporate control and profit-taking by producers of industrial inputs versus the survival of independent small-holders, the people that Thomas Jefferson swore were the bedrock of democracy, without whom democratic process would dry up and wither on the vine…

Stephen (Esteban) Bartlett, Agricultural Missions, Inc (AMI)

Colin Poulton
January 25, 2010 / Small Farm / Big Farm

Perhaps predictably, I find it hard to disagree with Steve’s arguments. There is a pro-smallholder and pro-science – even pro-GM! – position, drawing on a strong empirical record, that Paul completely misses in his attempt to slay the giants of romanticism. I will, therefore, confine myself to two main points:

The first augments Steve’s points about the comparative advantage of smallholder vs large-scale commercial agriculture. In low income economies, replacing labour with capital is often not efficient. This is true for many agricultural production tasks. Moreover, smallholder family labour is often better motivated and hence more efficient than the hired labour that large-scale farms have to rely on. In general, therefore, there are few economies of scale in agricultural production in Africa, although there may be in processing and marketing. That said, there are supply chains – most notably, export horticulture – where significant capital investments at farm level are unavoidable.

There are also economies of scale in traceability and other aspects of quality assurance. In such supply chains, the advantages of large farm organisation may outweigh the labour benefits of smallholder production. In a recent review of commercial agriculture in Africa for the World Bank (, we found that large-scale production had outperformed smallholder systems in export horticulture, sugar and flue-cured tobacco, but that smallholder production systems had outperformed large-scale in cotton and cashew, with strong performance under both forms in tea. The current debate has been prompted by the high food prices observed in 2008. Notably, food crop production in Africa remains dominated by smallholders.

The high costs of accessing and defending large landholdings in much of Africa may contribute to this. However, in a low income economy there are no obvious scale advantages in maize production and poor consumers are a long way from demanding the traceability and food safety assurance that could tip the balance in favour of large producers. Tellingly, where large farms do exist, they often choose to produce higher value crops than maize and other staples. Paul argues that “allowing commercial organizations to replace peasant agriculture gradually would raise global food supply in the medium term”. However, as Prabhu Pingali and others have shown for East Asia, market forces will tend to produce farm consolidation only when real wages in an economy rise well above levels seen in most of Africa today. When this happens, replacing labour with capital will make increasing sense and increasingly large plots will be necessary to generate an income for the owner comparable to that which could be obtained in an (attainable) off-farm job.

My second point augments one of Paul’s points. We can point to plenty of evidence showing that, where smallholders are supported through public or private delivery of support services (accessible input supply, seasonal finance, technical advice etc), they can compete strongly with large-scale farms in low income economies. However, large-scale farms do possess an important advantage: they can access such support services themselves (e.g. direct contact with commercial banks), whereas smallholders are heavily dependent on services being brought close to their farmgate. As Steve notes (not altogether approvingly), large-scale farms can even lobby for public infrastructure provision, something that smallholders have rarely been able to do.

The case for large-scale farms, therefore, looks stronger where states completely fail to provide or to encourage support services to smallholder producers. Without such service provision, smallholders are indeed more likely to be trapped in chronic poverty than to be drivers of agricultural growth. In recent years there have been encouraging commitments from African governments to increase their investment in the agricultural sectors of their countries. This is critical if smallholder production is to supply the ever-rising demand for food on the continent.

Colin Poulton, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London

Michael Loevinsohn
January 25, 2010 / Small Farm / Big Farm

I’d like to challenge one of Prof. Collier’s key points: small farmers are failing to keep up with the pace of change. “Innovation is hard to generate through peasant farming”, he writes. “Their mode of production is ill-suited to modern agricultural production in which scale is helpful”.  On the contrary, small farmers have shown time and again a capacity to rapidly evolve technologies and systems; in this their greater number and their closer interactions with their land, crops, animals and each other, relative to large farmers, are key advantages. This extends to achieving scale economies – where these are attractive – through cooperation. In a context of rapid change, small farmers’ capacity to evolve is critical. However, it is far more often ignored or suppressed than supported and fed.

An illuminating case comes from the highlands of southern Rwanda, one of the most densely populated parts of the most densely populated country in Africa.
Soon after arriving in the late 1980’s, I took up an initiative to advance sustainable intensification of highland valley bottoms thru farmer-led experimentation. Farmer groups in 3 valleys tried out and modified technical options they or we suggested; they bore all risks, we provided initial seed and advice. Within 2 seasons the valleys were transformed (photos). Rice, previously only grown 200 m lower, spread rapidly. Farmers identified varieties that tolerated cold and developed cropping patterns adapted to their economic orientation and the hydrology of their valleys. By the second season, all the groups had constructed sandbag-reinforced diversion dams and peripheral irrigation canals. Farmers who had never before seen a need to farm cooperatively were now electing coordinators to organize tasks that benefited all, like irrigation maintenance, and, when necessary, to enforce penalties. Appropriate scales of cooperation were quickly found for different tasks: larger for maintaining canals, smaller for managing a seedbed, still smaller for scaring off birds. “Traveling seminars” in which the groups showed and explained what they were trying were crucial for the evolution of these lumpy options. How to maintain functional diversity was a constant topic of conversation.  Rice was proving very productive (appreciated at home and with a ready market) but its spread threatened other elements.  Sweet potato especially: growing it in the valley provided cuttings for the hillsides and made year-round cultivation possible – an enormous boost to food security. One solution was to grow rice in paddies then rebuild raised beds for sweet potato, beans and e.g. out-of-season maize for the market: tremendously labour-demanding but evidently feasible for farmers with a few hundred sq m of land. Innovation was driven by necessity, which was hardly in short supply. But the context was less than supportive: markets functioned poorly, extension was demeaning and the state apparatus hostile to any autonomous initiative. Discussion in policy circles favoured scale and specialization – fewer people, growing one or a few crops, either in the valleys or on the hills. This much of the story was recounted in Agricultural Systems (1994, attached). I left a year before the genocide broke out in 1994. I visited in 1996: despite upheaval and more than 4 years without support of any kind, the groups had survived and rice cultivation had spread up the valleys.  It was more difficult to make out what had happened to other innovations. A few months ago, a colleague visited the area. The groups are all still active, 20 years on, and he found rice dominant over many kilometres of valley (photo).  It’s unclear to what extent farmers have been supported in this by public or private sector institutions (I know some are active in the area) and whether farmer innovation is being recognized. I’d love to find out more. A final thought. New cultivation techniques for familiar crops may prove an important production frontier, particularly as climate change accelerates. The System of Rice Intensification and related approaches are notable examples. The wheel is still very much in spin but evidence suggests a potential for significant gains in production and water use efficiency along with an inescapable need for local innovation and adaptation around the basic principles. Supporting the innovative capacity the Rwandan groups demonstrated would seem essential if that potential is to be captured.  

Michael Loevinsohn, Applied Ecology Associates

Peter Rosset
January 25, 2010 / Small Farm / Big Farm

I am surprised to find this debate starting all over again, and would like to ask readers to look over the following essays I wrote during an earlier iteration of these debates.  In them I challenge the conventional wisdom that small farms are backward and unproductive.

Using evidence from Southern and Northern countries I demonstrate that small farms are “multi-functional” – more productive, more efficient, and contribute more to economic development than large farms. Small farmers can also make better stewards of natural resources, conserving biodiversity and safe-guarding the future sustainability of agricultural production.

Peter Rosset, Associate, Global Alternatives

Jerome Gefu
January 25, 2010 / Small Farm / Big Farm

Professor Paul Collier’s thesis incriminating poor countries for lack of progress in food production, especially in the wake of the worsening global food crisis (and economic meltdown?) as hinging on the preponderance of small farms raises more questions than proffering feasible and sustainable solutions.   One question is: for whom do large-scale commercial farmers in poorer countries produce?

The argument for big farms as a means of boosting food production does not provide answer for the food shortage experienced in Africa and other poor regions. This is because most (if not all) of the large-scale commercial farmers in these regions produce essentially for Western markets where they are able to recoup their investments faster than they would have if they had targeted their production for domestic markets, where agricultural produce pricing is very erratic and responsive to a variety of environmental, socio-economic and political  uncertainties. These capital rich investors who are often members of the political and economic elite are able to easily deploy resources. However, there are only a handful of such advantaged capital rich investors that are willing to invest in food production for the purpose of alleviating domestic food crisis. Even when large scale farming had been embarked upon in most African countries, monumental failure had repeatedly been bitterly encountered.

The bulk of African farmers are resource-limited residing in remote areas. It was the small farms that dot African communities that feed the various populations in the 1960’s and 1970’s. It is a fact that these countries, like Nigeria , produced in excess of home consumption needs. Indeed, Nigeria (in the years preceding the discovery and exploration of oil) was a net exporter of food and agricultural products, deriving the bulk of her national income from agriculture. Those were the days of groundnut pyramids, cotton, rubber, cocoa, oil palm, grain and vegetable exports. These products came from the numerous small farms even as limited as they were in “modern farming inputs.” What went wrong, one might ask. Several things were amiss including the strong drive to modernize agriculture by employing large-scale production strategies with little or no regard for the prevailing institutional, cultural, environmental, socio-economic and other agricultural production considerations.

The African farmer is vulnerable to the vagaries of weather and is ill-prepared (and, therefore, caught off guard) when disasters come knocking. There are limited facilities and expertise for early warning devices. Conversely, in times of good harvests, producers have great difficulty in marketing excess crop and dairy products. The resulting glut results in depressed farm gate price and often producers are compelled to sell at significant losses. Post-harvest technologies, especially for preserving perishable foods are still being developed, the post-harvest losses are staggering. This could serve as disincentive to produce. Agricultural insurance scheme is almost non-existent for the smallholder. In times of losses, the farmer receives no compensation as every loss is borne by the farmer and his/her household.

Coming from the background of extreme poverty, the productivity of resource-limited farmers has declined steadily over the years. In many instances, land degradation has resulted in declining erosion and/or siltation, deforestation, overgrazing and desertification. The end result is food insecurity, which manifests in de-humanizing experiences (hunger, poverty, disease, etc). This scenario is aggravated by the increasing rate of land alienation to the economic and political elite who appropriate massive expanse of land for speculative purposes. This has resulted in the loss of land by majority of rural poor who are either forced to migrate out of the rural area and constitute themselves into a social menace in already congested cities, or become tenants to land merchants and land speculators. Many farmers and pastoralists who have lost access to land and/or livestock are increasingly converted to contract farmers for national multinational conglomerates.

Some past efforts geared at improving agricultural and food productivity have focused attention primarily on the injection of scientifically proven technologies that have led to substantial increase in crop and livestock production. Many of such introduced varieties have been found unsuitable because they are often not compatible with the agro-ecological conditions and farming systems of many African farming communities. Many of the introduced crop and livestock species required high-level inputs and management, which the poor farmer cannot provide. Where new varieties have been adopted and found to be well suited to the agro-climatic conditions, the resulting high yields have found limited market outlet. The resulting glut, coupled with the cheap imported foods from the West, African producers are faced with serious glut and depressed price and accompanying loss of income. Above scenario calls for a re-thinking and re-engineering of policies and programmes primarily targeted at the smallholder farmers of Africa .  Even where the scientific investments can lead to improved productivity, unless the poor have secure property rights the benefits are often expropriated by the powerful once the often poor quality of land has been restored meaning that the poor not only loose from the technical improvements but they loose on the value of the labour equity that has gone into improving productivity.

To get the African farmer out of the woods and be launched into prosperity, the aforementioned constraints must be meticulously addressed. For the region, the starting point for improved food production and eradicating extreme poverty and hunger is a complete overhauling of the institutional and policy environment. Reforms must be embarked upon by African leaders and peoples with every sincerity of purpose.

For us, the first step is to undertake a comprehensive land reform such that every rural producer shall be guaranteed secure access to crop and grazing land in pursuant of legitimate livelihoods. This calls for a re-thinking and re-engineering of land use and land tenure regulations and policies which would facilitate access to and use of land. Since most African communities access land through customary arrangements, land policies must of necessity include customary land arrangements which can be easily supervised through existing traditional institutional arrangements. Land policy guidelines must of necessity be couched within the socio-cultural milieu of the African society.  This way, customary land-users will have secure right.

Achieving food security will largely be determined by the willingness of African leaders to make a clean break from past business of government and imbibe the principles of good governance, transparency and accountability, rule of law, equity and fairness. It is this “business unusual” that will propel the engine of social and economic growth through the execution of people-oriented programs and institutional reforms. The thrust here is to provide enabling environment for enhancing the productivity and income of the rural poor. If corruption in the public and private sector can be halved by 2015, Africa would have moved some 60% towards attaining food self-sufficiency.

There is need to double development assistance (especially in the wake of the current global economic meltdown) channeled to fight hunger and poverty through community-based projects that target the real producers who often are the vulnerable groups in African countries. Application of aid should be through CBO’s and traditional institutions that are in tune with the local conditions and realities.

Small commercial farms, and not large-scale commercial farms is the answer to the current food crisis in Africa , at least in the foreseeable future.

Jerome Gefu

Small Farms Debate
January 25, 2010 / Small Farm / Big Farm

‘Small farmers can be a driving force in cutting hunger and poverty worldwide’ was a key message to G8 leaders from development specialists at The Future of Small Farms research workshop held in Wye in June 2005. Participants at the workshop, jointly organised by IFPRI, ODI and Imperial College London, concluded that investment in small farm agriculture could help to raise the rural poor out of poverty and catalyse wider economic growth.

However, the challenges small farmers in developing countries face include globalisation – especially the dramatic rise of supermarkets even in poor countries – low world market prices for major agricultural commodities and the expected negative impact of climate change. In Africa, these challenges are compounded by the spread of HIV/AIDS. In addition poor farmers are widely dispersed and have no effective political voice so are usually economically neglected.

But we should not give up on this task according to Dr Peter Hazell, Director of the Development Strategy and Governance Division of IFPRI and workshop organiser. Possibilities for alternative livelihoods within the non-farm sector do not look optimistic for the next decade or so and there are plenty of good investment opportunities within small farms which are good for both growth and poverty reduction.

The workshop participants agreed that:

  • Public investment in rural infrastructure, agricultural research and support services is needed to unleash the inherent power of small farmers.
  • In many African countries such investment is contrained by the capacity and quality of state institutions through which it would be channelled. These institutions have to be reformed to increase their accountability to farmers organisations and the private sector.
  • Donors must think carefully how aid can be used to encourage such reform programmes. The danger is that large increases in aid could remove incentives for recipient governments to undertake real reform.
  • The role of the state in providing key support to small farmers needs to be redefined. Structural adjustment programmes have led to state withdrawal from ensuring that small farmers have fair access to high quality seeds, fertilizers, technical advice and credit and marketing services and have left a vacuum which in most poor African countries has not been filled by the private sector. The state should perform a proactive role in collaboration with farmer organisations and private sector to ‘kick-start’ the markets and increase private sector involvement.

Are large-scale commercial farms the answer to Africa’s agricultural prayers?
January 25, 2010 / Small Farm / Big Farm

To produce the food necessary to reduce high world food prices and meet the future demands of a growing and more affluent population, large-scale commercial farming needs to be encouraged. Any romantic illusions about small-scale farmers should be set aside. Or so Professor Collier writing recently in Foreign Affairs (November/December 2008) argues.

This is particularly important in Africa where:

“African peasant agriculture has fallen further and further behind the advancing commercial productivity frontier, and based on present trends, the region’s food imports are projected to double over the next quarter century.”

Large-scale commercial farms (LSCF) have the advantages of being technically more advanced, able to reap economies of scale, mobilise funds and invest, and to react to evolving market demand:

“In modern agriculture, technology is fast-evolving, investment is lumpy, the private provision of transportation infrastructure is necessary to counter the lack of its public provision, consumer food fashions are fast-changing and best met by integrated marketing chains, and regulatory standards are rising toward the holy grail of the traceability of produce back to its source.”

Small farmers, on the other hand, have had their day:

“… their mode of production is ill suited to modern agricultural production, in which scale is helpful. …”

“Innovation, especially, is hard to generate through peasant farming.”

If we need a model of what can be done, then Brazil provides one:

“In Brazil, large, technologically sophisticated agricultural companies have demonstrated how successfully food can be mass-produced. To give one remarkable example, the time between harvesting one crop and planting the next — the downtime for land — has been reduced to an astounding 30 minutes.”

Is Professor Collier right? Yes, he is correct to emphasise the need for commercial farming. But no, he is wrong to imagine that this requires doing so on a large-scale. His solution is unnecessary, flies in the face of history, and carries important dangers.

Large-scale farms are unnecessary in Africa

Does Africa need to imitate Brazil? Let’s look at the record of Brazilian farm output from the early 1990s to the mid-2000s. During that time the index of production in Brazil rose by 77%, at an annual average rate of just over 4% a year: a good performance, one of the best twenty in the world. But no less than eight African countries — Angola, Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Liberia, Mozambique and Nigeria — did better, while Ethiopia fell short of Brazil by the smallest of margins — see Figure. The African countries concerned all have farm sectors dominated by smallholdings — as applies in the cases of Vietnam and China that also have better records than Brazil. If Africa needs models, then it might be better to look to at its own success stories, or to some Asian experiences, rather than to Brazil.    The history of African farming reveals numerous episodes where there have been remarkable spurts of growth in agricultural output coming from small farms. Coffee farms in Central Kenya in the 1950s and 1960s, cocoa in Ghana in the late C19th, cotton in Francophone Africa in the 1990s, maize in Zimbabwe in the 1980s are just a few examples.

These cases show that when small farmers are given the incentives to produce more and the means to do so, they invest, innovate and respond to opportunity. It is not a lack of large-scale farms that lies behind the disappointments of African agriculture, but a lack of conditions to allow small farmers to fulfil their potential.

Large-scale farming has often failed in Africa

Professor Collier is not the first person to believe that larger-scale farms in Africa would lead to major increases in production. Others have been beguiled by the prospect of rapid transformations. But the record of schemes to introduce large farms has many failures.

Back in the late 1940s Britain saw opportunity in southern Tanzania to grow a crop that would meet the post-war demand for vegetable oil and jump-start agricultural development in a remote colony. Large mechanised farms would be opened in the bush on which groundnuts would be grown. The result was a shambles.

In the 1970s, a US agribusiness took over land in Senegal with the intention of growing vegetables for export. By the end of the 1970s Bud Senegal planned to export 100,000 tonnes of irrigated fruit and vegetables, but the result was failure and bankruptcy.

Ghana promoted large-scale privately-owned rice farms in the Northern Region in the late 1970s with subsidies: they failed once the subsidies were ended. This was not Ghana’s only bad experience of large scale farming: Nkrumah’s ill-starred attempts at large-scale state farms had been earlier failures. Yes, there are successful large-scale farms in Africa, but generally for those relatively few crops where economies of scale exist in production; for example in flowers, horticulture, and sugar cane. When it comes to the main food crops and other export crops, there are few examples of large-scale farms outside of South Africa.

Why is this? The main obstacle to farming on a large scale is the same one that hit Soviet state farms: the management of labour. Small farms have the advantage that family labour is generally self-supervising, prepared to work long and diligently in ways that hired hands are not. When large farms try to minimise the labour problem by mechanising, not only do their costs of production rise, but keeping machinery operating well in rural areas remote from supplies of spares and skilled mechanics is not easy.

Promoting large-scale farming is risky

The obvious danger is that allocating land for commercial farms in large holdings would take land away from the rural poor, or block them off from land that their children may need in the future. Socially unacceptable, any such moves involve high political exposure: expropriation is easy to justify on the basis of historic wrongs. But other less obvious and more insidious risks lurk.

What happens to agricultural policy when a large-scale farm sector is created? With relatively few farmers that can readily be organised, who are rich and politically well-connected as well, large-scale farmers in Africa have a track record of lobbying for special favours. Government is expected to support the large farms with roads, irrigation, and power supplies. Research stations are encouraged to devote their attention to the issues that concern the large farms. The result is that the large farms get these public goods, while any small farms do not. Worse, the large farmers demand subsidies on inputs, guaranteed prices for their outputs, and exclusive rights to grow crops or to market them.

Look at the record of the commercial farming unions of South Africa and Zimbabwe in the recent past. Look today at the large grain farms of Kenya’s Rift Valley. Owned by the political elite, the price paid for maize by the government marketing board is way over the import parity price, conferring substantial rents on the wealthy producers — all in the name of national self-sufficiency.

The record of model Brazil is not so encouraging in this regard either. During the 1980s the commercial farm lobby managed to get the government to offer subsidies on interest rates for farm credit that by 1979–80 were equal to 19–20% of the gross agricultural product, or 2% of GDP. Whilst the majority of Brazil’s farms were of 10 ha or less, only 4% of such smallholders had a bank loan in 1980: 85% of the agricultural portfolio went to the more prosperous South, Southeast and Centre-West regions—with only small amounts going to the needy Nordeste.

Commercial farming, yes; agri-business, yes; but it doesn’t need to be large farms

This is not to deny that large-scale private investors seeking to produce more in Africa should be welcomed. Their capital, their expertise can be put to good use, to the advantage of both the companies and many African (small) farmers as well. But let’s get the economies of scale where they are needed: in the supply chains, in processing, transport and marketing —where lumpy investments and sophisticated know-how count. But let’s leave the farming to the local experts, the family farmers, who have all the incentives to work hard and carefully. This is not romanticism; it is simply a reflection of the empirical record. Small farmers in Africa have repeatedly shown that they can increase production. Let’s give them the chance to do so again.
Steve Wiggins

Derek Byerlee and Alain de Janvry
January 25, 2010 / Small Farm / Big Farm

Paul Collier (November/December 2008 issue) sets out three priorities to overcome the world food crisis—moving to large-scale commercial farms to replace peasant or smallholder farming, promoting genetically modified organisms, and reducing distorting subsidies to biofuels in the US.  We think that Professor Collier got two of these right, but missed the boat with his anti-smallholder bias to modernizing agriculture, especially in Africa.

There are three reasons why a focus on smallholder farming is a proven strategy for accelerating growth, reducing poverty, and overcoming hunger.

First, smallholders have proven to be efficient commercial farmers, when given a chance. This is evident from the Asian Green Revolution experience led by smallholders in the 1960s and continuing until today. In India, cereal yields are now 2.6 times what they were in the 1960s, with nearly 90 percent of farmland controlled by farmers with under 10 hectares. And this was not through organic agriculture — Asian smallholder farmers now consume over half of the world’s fertilizer. Failure to realize a Green Revolution in Africa reflects a consistent policy bias against agriculture and smallholders in particular, by both governments and donors. When given the opportunity, smallholders in Africa have proven to be just as responsive in adopting new technologies as their Asian sisters. Witness the adoption of hybrid maize in much of southern Africa, the smallholder dairy revolution of east Africa, and the cocoa, cassava, and cotton successes of West Africa. And witness also the many failed starts with large-scale farming in Africa, dating from colonial times.

Second, accelerating smallholder productivity is win-win in terms of increasing food production and reducing poverty. From 1991 to 2001, China doubled its cereal yields based on smallholders with an average of 0.4 ha of land, while dramatically reducing rural poverty by 63 percentage points and taking a historically unprecedented 400 million rural people out of poverty. Over the same period, the Brazil model of large-scale farming espoused by Professor Collier nearly matched the Chinese record of productivity growth, but the number of rural poor actually increased.

Finally, Professor Collier equates the global food crisis and the hunger of some 900 million people with food supply alone. Yet increasing food supply is only one side of the solution—generating incomes for the poor to access food is equally if not more important. We should not forget that 75% of the world’s poor are rural, and that they mainly depend on agriculture and related activities for their livelihoods. Since the majority of these rural poor are net buyers of food, raising the productivity of the land they control so they can better feed themselves is essential to gain access to food.

While we recognize that large-scale agriculture has a place in a some land abundant areas of Africa if it is driven by markets rather than subsidies, and the rights of current land users are adequately protected, it would be a huge mistake to forsake the proven power of smallholders to jump start growth, reduce poverty, and solve the hunger crisis in Africa and beyond. Promoting smallholder farming is not “romantic populism”, but sound economic and social policy.

Derek Byerlee and Alain de Janvry, Co-Directors of the World Development Report 2008, Agriculture for Development,