Various explanations have been advanced for the persistent under-performance of agriculturein many African countries, where smallholder farming is still the dominant livelihood activity and the main source of employment, food and income. Some of the oldest argumentsremain the most compelling.
African farmers face harsh agro-ecologies and erratic weather,characterised by low soil fertility, recurrent droughts and/or floods, and increasingly unpredictable weather patterns associated with climate change. Vulnerability to shocks is compounded by infrastructure deficits (roads and transport networks, telecommunications,potable water and irrigation) that keep poor communities poor and vulnerable, as testifiedby the phenomenon observed during livelihood crises of steep food price gradients fromisolated rural villages to densely settled urban centres.
African farmers have also been inadequately protected against the forces of globalisation and adverse international terms oftrade – for instance, Western farmers and markets are heavily protected in ways that African farmers and markets are not. Finally, African agriculture has been the subject of numerous experiments – strategies,policies, programmes and projects – from ‘Integrated Rural Development Programmes’(IRDPs) in the 1960s to ‘Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers’ (PRSPs) in the 1990s.
Perhaps the most significant intervention of the last half-century was agricultural liberalisation,promoted under the ‘structural adjustment’ reform umbrella during the 1980s and 1990s. Following inconclusive evidence on the impacts of these policy reform processes, the debatecontinues over whether agricultural liberalisation was a good idea badly implemented by‘refusenik’ African governments, or a bad idea doomed to fail, that was imposed on African governments against their better judgement and against the interests of their poor andvulnerable citizens, many of whom are small farmers.
This debate is relevant to our topic,since government interventions in agriculture (pre-liberalisation) were motivated by concerns to achieve household and national food security, both by supporting agricultural growth and by protecting farmers against agricultural risks and market failures.