Why livestock can be good for the environment

Written by: Ian Scoones

At the end of last year, together with colleagues at IDS, I spent quite a bit of time making the case for a more balanced view on livestock and the environment. We tried to raise the debate during the two big COPs – first in November at COP27 on climate change and then in December at COP15 on biodiversity. We produced a series of reports, briefings and videos to help share our (and many others’) research.


Why is this necessary? Unfortunately, livestock have been cast as the villains, contributors to environmental destruction and a major driver of climate change. While some livestock systems are obviously damaging, lumping all systems into one argument makes little sense. The result is a confused policy debate – including at the COPs – that often points the finger of blame in the wrong direction. This results in major injustices for those livestock keepers who are guardians of nature and have limited climate impacts, as we argue in a new article in the IDS Bulletin.

So through the PASTRES programme, which I co-lead, and in alliance with a range of different organisations, we’ve been trying to encourage a more sophisticated, nuanced debate. The materials shared below are just some of a growing body of evidence that offers a different narrative.

In places like Zimbabwe livestock production is integral to mixed farming systems and in the drier areas, extensive grazing is vital for people’s livelihoods. Meat and milk production is vital for income earning for many – whether from cattle or from goats and sheep. And while animal sourced foods are not consumed in huge quantities, except by a small consumption elite, such products are essential for people’s nutrition, health and well-being.

For many readers of this blog it may seem odd to have to make such a basic argument about the importance of livestock. But believe me if you read the comment columns of many newspapers, listen to activists’ proclamations about the evil of livestock production and hear how such views get wrapped up in policy-making and donor funding, then such efforts – basic as they may seem – are urgently needed.

A recent attempt at offering a clear and simple statement about the importance of extensive livestock keeping and links to the climate change debate and wider resource politics is a Primer we produced together with the Transnational Institute and the World Alliance for Mobile Indigenous Peoples and Pastoralists (WAMIP). The Primer is available here and the launch event can be viewed again here.

Livestock are not always bad for the planet

During the COPs, we made the case that livestock can be good for the environment. The effect of livestock on the climate and biodiversity depends on which livestock, where. Pastoral systems can show neutral or positive carbon balances, especially for mobile systems that distribute manure/urine and incorporate it, adding to carbon cycling.

For the climate COPs in 2021 and 2022, we produced a report called “Are livestock always bad for the planet? Rethinking the protein transition and climate change debate“. A short 2-min video explains the basic argument, and a series of briefings outline some of the key findings, which you can watch here. And further materials can be found through the following links:

– Are livestock always bad for the planet?

– The truth about livestock

– Placing livestock in context through a systems approach

– Centring livestock-keepers

In addition, a briefing linking the climate and biodiversity debates was produced on the role of pastoralists in addressing the linked crises of climate and biodiversity. And the a blog offered a round-up of debates at COP27 in Egypt.

Moving on to COP15 on biodiversity, we produced another short 2-minute video that summarises some of the key arguments in a series of briefings. You can view it here. The following sections offer some overviews and links of the six briefings.

Why tree planting in rangelands can be bad for biodiversity and the climate

Mass tree planting schemes are proposed as a way to combat desertification, improve biodiversity and address climate change through ‘carbon offset’ schemes. Initiatives funded by international donors such as the AFR100 and the ‘Great Green Wall’ are deeply problematic, yet have targeted over one billion hectares of rangelands across the world.

This briefing explains how such initiatives can exclude people, livestock and wildlife and can seriously undermine plant biodiversity.

Enhancing biodiversity through livestock keeping

Carefully managed grazing in extensive (especially in mobile) livestock systems is essential for biodiversity conservation in many ecosystems across the world. Mobile pastoral systems can create bio-corridors through transhumance routes, disperse seeds, create fertile hotspots or mitigate against fires.

A briefing produced for COP15 offers eight examples of how pastoralism and conservation can work together.

How livestock keeping can reduce wildfires

Regular fires are essential for ecosystem health in rangelands. In rangeland ecologies, fire is important for conservation, but it must be limited and controlled, and this requires grazing. In meeting the challenge of increasing wildfires, supporting pastoral systems is likely to be much more successful than just focusing on fire suppression and more firefighters.

This briefing sets out how extensively-grazed livestock with more people looking after them can reduce the risk of fire.

Rewilding and ecosystem restoration: what is ‘natural’?

What is ‘natural’ and what is ‘wild’ is deeply contested. Rangelands are not simply degraded forests, as some assume. Plans for conservation must include pastoralists and other land users who have created valuable landscapes through use by people and their animals over many years.

This briefing sets out how different values and understanding of ecosystems are used in debates on rewilding, and why a more sophisticated debate is required.

Pastoralists as conservationists

Pastoralists and other livestock keepers are too often pitted against conservationists. Pastoralism is not compatible with a style of conservation that encloses and excludes, but extensive livestock-keeping can be central to more people-centred conservation approaches.

This briefing sets out how creating mixed use, integrated landscapes and emphasising co-management a can build a conservation approach that works for both people and planet.

The blog draws from an article on the IDS website and links to work undertaken by the ERC funded PASTRES programme based at IDS and EUI.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and originally appeared on Zimbabweland.

APRA Working Paper 95: Agricultural Technology, Food Security and Nutrition: Insight From Oil Palm Smallholders in Ghana

Written by: Lisa Capretti, Amrita Saha, Farai Jena and Fred M. Dzanku

The use of agricultural technologies has facilitated gains from agricultural commercialisation for smallholder farmers in Africa. Practices that involve these technologies play an important role in tackling poverty and food insecurity in Sub-Saharan Africa. Hence, the link between agricultural technology practices, food security and nutrition is important, and has relevant implications for policymaking. Using new panel data for oil palm producers in Ghana from the Agricultural Policy Research in Africa (APRA) consortium, this paper sheds light on the relationship between the use of agricultural practices, food security and nutrition outcomes, focusing especially on the mediating role of women empowerment.

How important is farm size to agricultural productivity in Sub-Saharan Africa?

© IFAD/Bernard Kalu
Written by: Oluwatoba Omotilewa

The finding that smallholder farms are more productive than medium- to large-scale farms has long been documented, and has led to smallholder-led agricultural and development strategies in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). However, evidence for this assertion has been largely limited to data from farms operating 5ha and below. More recent evidence from Nigeria suggests that productivity varies widely within farms, regardless of farm size. This blog examines our recent study, utilizing data over a wider range of farm sizes over two years in Nigeria to further investigate how productivity relates to farm size.


The main questions asked included, ‘Does farm size play any role in agricultural productivity?’ And if so, ‘How important is this role?’ Also, ‘How does farm productivity or cultivated area vary over time?’ In developing countries in general, and SSA in particular, these are relevant questions that development practitioners, agricultural stakeholders, policymakers, and researchers must continue to ask as they re-think strategies that best improve agricultural productivity and food security in Africa.

What did we find?

Our study investigated how changes in farm size distributions relate to farm productivity and equity in African agriculture, using farms ranging from 0-40ha in Nigeria. We found that farm size plays no role in farm productivity between the 0-40ha range of farms. In fact, the findings show that although average productivity is nearly constant across all farm size categories (whether small-scale or medium-scale farms), there is a significant variation in productivity within each farm size category (see Figure 1).

Furthermore, the study found dynamic movements across farm size categories over time (from 2018 to 2020), where some small-scale farm operators stepped up into cultivating medium-scale farms while some medium-scale operators stepped down into cultivating smaller farm sizes. However, the majority of these transitions from one farm size category to another were movements into the immediate level just below or above the farm size categories the operators were originally cultivating.

Lastly, our study documents that, on average, productivity remained consistent for operators who were consistently smallholders or medium-scale farmers over time (from 2018 to 2020). However, for operators who switched from small-scale to medium-scale operations between 2018 and 2020, there was a relative increase in productivity over time; whereas, for operators switching from medium- to small-scale farming, their productivity appeared to decrease over time.

Figure 1: Box plot showing gross value of crop output/ha by farm categories.



Note: SSF implies small-scale farms (<=5ha), MSF1 implies medium-scale farm (5-10ha), MSF2 implies 10-20ha, and MSF3 implies >20ha.

Policy implications

Overall, the findings show that farm size is a relatively weak indicator of productivity in Nigeria. That is, any apparent relationship observed between farm size and productivity in small- or medium-scale farm samples are insignificant and non-size related factors are much more important drivers of productivity. In fact, given the variability in productivity within each farm size category, there is great potential to raise productivity across farms of all sizes in Nigeria. And if all farms with below average productivity could meet this level, this could raise average gross output per hectare by 125 per cent.

These results have important policy implications. First, development practitioners and researchers must recognize that both smallholders and medium-scale operators exhibit a high degree of variability in potential productivity. Hence, focusing on farm size, a relatively minor factor influencing national agricultural productivity, risks diverting attention away from more impactful programs and policy options to raise productivity. The fact that there is high variation in productivity across all farm size categories suggests that public spending which emphasizes new technologies and practices that can be adopted by farms of all sizes – such as productivity raising seed varieties, improved agronomic and soil health practices raising yield response to inputs, and practices that stabilize crop yields in the face of variable weather – hold the greatest potential for raising farm productivity for all farms.

Photo credit: © IFAD/Bernard Kalu

Ethiopia’s import dependence on rice-exporting countries: implications for policy and development responses

© IFAD/Bernard Kalu
Written by: Dawit Alemu

With the current instability in global grain markets – mainly due to the ongoing impacts of COVID-19, the war in Ukraine, and climatic events impacting rice production – major rice-producing Asian countries have been considering steps to protect their domestic markets. This blog reflects on the possible implications of export bans or taxation measures taken by rice exporting countries on rice production and marketing in Ethiopia, along with the extent of policy and development interventions made by policymakers to mitigate the impacts.


Many African countries – recognising their over-dependence on imported rice and the instability of global rice markets – have been working to increase domestic rice production. As one of Africa’s main rice importers, Ethiopia developed its first National Rice Sector Development Strategy (NRDS) in 2010, which was revised in 2020 to run to 2030. Over the past decade, significant expansion in rice growing has occurred, with the total land area under rice cultivation rising from about 10,000ha in 2006, to over 85,000ha in 2021. But, despite these efforts, consumer demand has far outstripped supply and, today, rice imports account for 76 per cent of Ethiopia’s rice consumption.

In comparison to other staple foods, rice is a relatively new crop to Ethiopia having been introduced in the 1970s by the government to address food security issues. The grain is now considered so important that the Government of Ethiopia ranked it among the country’s priority commodities in 2008. However, recent geopolitical and climatic events could threaten imports. With global instability in the grain market and reduced domestic rice production due to climate change events in 2022 – for example, a lack of rain in India and flooding in Pakistan – major rice exporting countries have been considering reducing their rice exports.

In 2021, India accounted for about 40 per cent of rice exported globally. However, as a result of poor rains in 2022, domestic production was expected to decline considerably. Consequently, the Government of India initially proposed an export ban of broken rice and the introduction of a 20 per cent export tariff for other rice types. However, with an improvement in recent rainfall over Indian rice growing areas, fears have been quelled somewhat – although extensive flooding in Pakistan is estimated to have reduced rice production in 2022 by at least 10 per cent, leading to soaring prices across markets in the country.

Figure 1: Proportion of broken rice imports from India and Pakistan as proportion of total rice imports in Ethiopia
Source: Author’s estimations, based on data from Ethiopia’s Ministry of Revenues

As Ethiopia becomes increasingly more dependent on Indian rice imports, any measure taken by India is expected to have direct and considerable impact on the Ethiopian rice market. As shown in Figures 1 and 2, over 90 per cent of both broken and milled rice imports to Ethiopia come from India, which has risen to 97 per cent of milled rice and almost 100 per cent of broken rice imports in 2021. 

Figure 2: Trends in Indian rice import volumes (2010–2021)
Source: Author’s estimations, based on data from Ethiopia’s Ministry of Revenues

Following India’s reconsideration of its export ban, the threat to rice imports has temporarily eased. However, continued global uncertainty and economic pressures, combined with the risk of future climatic challenges, are making it increasingly urgent for Ethiopia to become more self-sufficient in rice.

Recognising these import dependence challenges, not just in rice but also other crops, the Ethiopian government introduced flagship programmes for three priority commodities: rice, wheat, and edible oil. In August 2022, Ethiopia’s National Rice Flagship Program was officially handed over to the Ministry of Agriculture. This ambitious five-year programme (2022-2027) aims to achieve over 80 per cent self-sufficiency in rice. This is a laudable goal, but whether it is realistic remains to be seen. The prominence and significance given to rice by the Ethiopian government is undoubtedly much more evident now – with the grain being given priority commodity status and specifically mentioned in government documents.

Policy and development responses

The current 10-year (2020-2030) NRDS aims to boost domestic production by 2030 to 1.93 million t of rice – by increasing the area to 385,000ha from the current about 85,000ha and increasing the average yield of 5t/ha from the current 3.15t/ha. The National Rice Flagship Program (2022-2027) has been designed to ensure that the NRDS is implemented. To meet these targets, flagship interventions are targeting the entire rice value chain. In addition to increasing rice yields and expanding cultivation areas, the initiative is also working to strengthen the rice processing industry, modernise the marketing system, and facilitate rice import regulation to boost competitiveness of domestic rice.

The recognition of rice as a priority commodity and the attempts to address the challenges faced are evidence of policy attention, which is required to ensure considerable expansion in rice production. For example, in Oromia region, it is reported that the cultivated area for rice increased to 100,000ha in the 2021/22 production season, from about 11,000ha in 2020/21. A similar trend is reported across other rice-producing regions like Amhara, Benishagul Gumuz and Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ Region (SNNPR). However, for Ethiopia to achieve its ambitious self-sufficiency goals, it will be critical to promote active collaboration and engagement between the government, private sector and development partners to:

  • Build the capacity of producers and value chain actors to use modern machinery and process rice more quickly to achieve higher quality value addition;
  • Improve the marketing system for both paddy and milled rice mainly targeting marketing system development that provides incentive for quality paddy and milled rice production. This demands an active role for the government in supporting coordination of the rice value chain and strengthening capacity of private actors involved in value addition and marketing;
  • Ensure access to improved rice-related technological options (pre-harvest, harvest, and post-harvest technologies); and
  • Set up strong organisational structures (including the staff, offices, and finances) within the National Rice Flagship Program to effectively facilitate effective its implementation from federal to regional level.

Photo credit: © IFAD/Bernard Kalu

Journal Article: Determinants of Farmer’s Decision to Transit to Medium/Larger Farm Through Expansion of Land Area Under Commercial Tree Crop Plantation in Nigeria

Written by: Adebayo B. Aromolaran, Abiodun E. Obayelu, Milu Muyanga, Thomas Jayne, Adesoji Adelaja, Titus Awokuse, Omotoso O. Ogunmola & Olatokunbo H. Osinowo

Decision-making is central to farm management. This study assesses key factors influencing land allocation decisions of households with respects to tree crop cultivation in Nigeria. The study uses primary data collected electronically from a sample of 569 small and 495 medium-scale farmers in Ogun State.Tobit and Heckman regression models were estimated. The study finds that, farm households who have access to land markets and land tenure security, all-weather roads, agro-dealer services and better transportation services are more likely to cultivate tree crop fields and allocate a higher share of total farm holdings to tree crop enterprises. Farm households with more educated heads put larger area of land under commercial tree crop cultivation and those with larger off-farm income tend to cultivate less hectarage to tree crops. The share of farmland allocated to tree crops by male headed households is higher than the share by the female headed households. In addition, female and youth-headed households were found to be less likely to invest in commercial tree
crop farming. Policies and intervention programs that would enhance access to land, agro-dealer services, all-weather roads, transportation services and security of land tenure could facilitate the redistribution of land in favour of commercial tree crops.

Why COP27 needs a more sophisticated debate about livestock and climate change

Written by: Ian Scoones

As the climate conference, COP27, kicks of in Sharm el Sheik in Egypt debates about agriculture and land use will be centre stage. And amongst these discussions the role of livestock in the future of food and agricultural systems will be hotly debated. Unfortunately, many of these debates are poorly informed and misleading, frequently hitting the wrong target.


There are strong arguments for reducing the impact of livestock farming in places like the Amazon where expansion of pastures or crops for fodder is encroaching on valuable rainforest areas. Equally there are good reasons for many in the rich West to reduce the consumption of meat and milk from high input industrial systems.

But such arguments do not extend to all livestock everywhere. Misleading policy conclusions arise from aggregated statistics, which often miss out on extensive, smallholder and pastoralist livestock systems. For example, the well-respected data and graphics provider Our World in Data provide easily-consumed data for journalists that highlight livestock as the big villain of climate change. But these data are based on studies that do not account for most extensive livestock systems, focusing instead only on ‘commercially viable farms.’

So, in thinking about climate mitigation measures, we need to ask, which livestock, where? And always avoid being trapped by simplistic, generalising narratives that can be misleading and dangerous. This is why the PASTRES programme that works in six countries across three continents released the report – Are livestock always bad for the planet? The report digs into the data and questions the standard narrative.

In particular, ten flaws in standard approaches to climate assessments of livestock are highlighted and are discussed in a short briefing, available in multiple languages. Most such assessments use so-called life cycle assessments, but too often the data are estimated based on emission factors that make no sense in most outside intensive, industrial livestock systems. Furthermore, we have to ask whether extensive systems are in fact ‘additional’ compared to ‘natural’ systems, where wild animals rather than domesticated livestock roam. And when thinking about emissions, we have to be careful when equating methane (from animals) with carbon dioxide (from fossil fuel intensive industries) as they have very different effects on global heating.

Presenting all livestock as a villain and making the case for radical shifts of diet and land use everywhere – even going so far as promoting the idea of farm-free futures where protein is derived from large fermentation vats – makes little sense. Such a techno-utopian vision would undermine many people’s livelihoods, destroy local economies and would likely have little positive impact on the environment in places where livestock are an integrated part of sustainable agro-ecosystems.

Indeed, despite proclaiming otherwise, such positions may accentuate climate injustice, opening opportunities for further concentration of food systems, while fostering exclusionary forms of conservation or ‘rewilding’. In so doing they undermine the very people who should be at the forefront of creating climate-friendly agricultural systems, such as pastoralists and extensive livestock keepers who live across the world’s rangeland on over half the world’s land surface.

A focus on net-zero targets for carbon removal from land – through reducing livestock use and planting trees, for example – may badly misfire. Trees are vulnerable carbon sources in many environments because of fire risk and may be less good at capturing and retaining carbon than grasslands, supported by careful livestock grazing.

Mass tree planting on rangelands can result in displacement of people and their livestock, as plantation crops are established and enclosures increase. The rush to plant trees is again being driven by misunderstandings of ecosystems and carbon dynamics in rangeland settings. And such damaging tree planting is being pushed by carbon offset markets that are central to net zero deals, whereby polluting companies in one part of the world can absolve themselves by planting trees elsewhere.    

Addressing climate change is perhaps the greatest challenge for humanity today. COP27 in Egypt is a vital political moment. But in our eagerness to meet the challenge, we must be careful about false and misleading solutions that can result in heightened injustices. Certain types of livestock keeping – in the right places, with the right management – can and should be part of the climate solution.

If you are in Sharm el Sheik, there are lots of events that focus on these issues – see the COP27 Livestock Resources from ILRI. If you are not there (I personally will be amongst the livestock keepers of Matobo in Matabeland South discussing these issues on the ground), then do have a look at some of our PASTRES publications in order to get a more informed view.

Report and briefings in multiple languages: Are livestock always bad for the planet? – Pastoralism, Uncertainty and Resilience – PASTRES

Video: Are livestock always bad for the planet? – YouTube

Article: Livestock and climate justice: challenging mainstream policy narratives’ – IDS Bulletin

Primer: Livestock, climate and the politics of resources – Transnational Institute

This post was written by Ian Scoones and originally appeared on Zimbabweland.

Boosting commercialisation through the production of commercial tree crops in Nigeria

Written by: Adebayo B. Aromolaran & Abiodun E. Obayelu

Farming in Nigeria has been historically dominated by small-scale farms (SSFs). However, recent evidence suggests that medium-scale farmers (MSFs) are becoming increasingly prominent. One pathway for MSF growth in Nigeria has been identified as the expansion of land area under commercial tree crop plantations, such as cocoa, cashew, oil palm, kola nut, and coconut. However, very little is currently known about the factors that drive this expansion. Our recently published journal paper aimed to fill this gap.


What did we find?

Commercial tree crop plantations were found to be more common among MSFs than for SSFs, with 57 per cent and 25 per cent of MSFs and SSFs owning tree crop plantations, respectively. Commercial trees have become a major focus in Nigeria, as a way of increasing foreign exchange earnings from non-oil exports; increasing cultivation of these tree crops is therefore a core component of the government’s ‘Zero Oil Plan’ (ZOP). Consequently, encouraging expansion of the land area cultivated to tree crops, among both SSFs and MSFs, could become an important pathway for agricultural commercialisation and growth of non-oil export earnings for Nigeria.

Despite having been identified as a pathway towards commercialisation, expansion of commercial tree crop plantations is nevertheless hindered by weak land tenure security, and inadequate access to hired labour and agrochemical supplies. For example, only 0.7 per cent of SSFs and 5.7 per cent of MSFs have formal titles to their land. Our data also revealed that only 13 per cent of all sampled farm households had access to hired labour and 25 per cent to agro-service dealers. Our research revealed that poor yields, resulting partly from inadequate access to agrochemicals, discourage farmers from increasing their allocation of farmland to commercial tree crops.

Despite these challenges, both SSFs and MSFs often have room for expansion, if the production and marketing environment is enhanced by appropriate policies. The average SSF cultivates 56 per cent of the total land under their control (2.3ha), while the average MSF cultivates 63 per cent of their land (11.4ha).

Our results also show that among SSFs, years of education, access to all-weather roads and agro-dealer services, as well as improved land tenure security, were key factors that positively influence decision to allocate and/or expand land for tree crop production. These factors could therefore potentially increase the rate that SSFs transition into MSFs. For existing MSFs, higher levels of education, and increased access to land markets, agro-dealer services and large haulage vehicles for transportation of farm produce, were the most important factors driving the growth of commercial tree crop plantations.

Women and youths are less likely to allocate farmland to commercial trees crops, relative to arable crops. Women in many Nigerian communities are forbidden from owning land, and this automatically constrains them from planting tree crops, which occupy the land for more than 40 years. Youths on the other hand are less interested in cultivating commercial tree crops because of the long gestation periods of the crops, which means delayed returns unlike annual food crops, which provide a return within a year.

How can tree crop production be increased?

The transition of SSFs to MSFs, through the cultivation of tree crop plantations, can be facilitated by policies that would increase the security of land tenure, improve access to agro-dealer services, all-weather roads, and large haulage transportation facilities, and expand gender inclusion. Specifically, policies must be designed to:

1) Increase land tenure security, especially among SSF households, to enable them to increase investment in permanent crops like cocoa, cashew, kola nut, coconut and oil palm.

2) Increase access to agro-dealer services. Improving the distribution network of agro-chemical products, will enable farmers to obtain the recommended inputs for commercial trees, and encourage them to allocate more land to these crops.

3) Improve access to all-weather roads, to facilitate aggregation of farm produce, especially among SSFs, who are often widely scattered across very rural locations.

4) Encourage more women and youth to engage in commercial tree crop farming. Specifically, there needs to be changes in the cultural perception that women cannot inherit family land. Land markets also need to be well developed to allow woman and youth to be able to purchase land. Finally, because of the long delay before these crops begin to bring in reasonable returns, there is a need for programmes that will facilitate the access of women and youths to long-term credit facilities, specifically for tree crop production.

Authors information:

Adebayo B. Aromolaran is a Professor at the Department of Agricultural Economics, Adekunle Ajasin University, Akungba Akoko, Ondo State, Nigeria.

Abiodun Elijah Obayelu is an Associate Professor at the Department of Agricultural Economics & Farm Management, Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta, Ogun State, Nigeria. 

How does agricultural commercialisation affect livelihoods in Zimbabwe?

Written by: Ian Scoones

The question of how agricultural commercialisation affects livelihoods has been central to the recently completed APRA programme, which, along with Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria and Tanzania, had work going on in Zimbabwe. A core part of the Zimbabwe work was major repeat panel surveys of smallholder A1 resettlement farms in Mazowe district. The surveys were undertaken in 2018 and 2020, reflecting on the previous season’s performance, with a repeated matched sample of 533. A cluster sample randomly chose 11 A1 (smallholder) resettlement schemes in Mvurwi and 7 in Concession and then all households in those areas were included. The panel design allowed for confounding factors to be controlled for and analysis of effects of different variables could be discerned, even though the seasons were radically different.


The team, led by Chrispen Sukume and involving Godfrey Mahofa, Vine Mutyasira and others – supported by a large team of enumerators and others drawn especially from Agritex – explored some key questions at the top of policymakers’ minds. Does commercialisation (i.e., regular sales) of tobacco, soya and maize result in improved incomes and accumulation of assets, and so reductions in poverty? How does the focus on cash crops influence seasonal hunger and food insecurity? Do women benefit from this process of commercialisation?

A1 farmers generating income and investing in assets

As discussed many times on this blog, these A1 areas are at the forefront of a new agricultural revolution, particularly in the high potential zones of the country. They are a significant supplier of marketed crops contributing 36 per cent of all soybeans sold on formal markets, 26 per cent of all maize registered a6s sales and they constitute 41 per cent of registered producers of flue-cured tobacco in the country, with the remainder made up by A2 medium-scale farms and remaining large-scale farms. Even though this is only the formally recorded sales (there are many, many more, including informal exchanges), this is a major contribution to the core of Zimbabwe’s formal economy. But how do farmers themselves fare? This was the question for the research, now reported in a series of APRA Working Papers.

In terms of income and accumulation (or rather the value of asset ownership, as the studies do not look at trajectories over time), the results shared in an APRA paper show that those households engaging in tobacco, soya and maize sales all gain more income and own more assets. Income is measured as volume of sales x the cash gained as reported by farmers and assets are those reported by farmers valued according to replacement costs. Tobacco producers fare best, followed by soya and maize producers. However, it’s those who combine tobacco and soya that have the best incomes, and it is the tobacco producers in particular who see the most impressive asset ownership levels. Econometric analysis suggests that selling both tobacco and soya will result in an increase of income by 194%, “all else being equal”. Positive outcomes in terms of farm income are also correlated with spending on inputs, livestock ownership, area of land planted and tractor usage.

Farming pays: returns to land and labour

The results are of course not surprising – cash crops provide cash and cash can be invested in assets – and the pattern seen from the surveys confirm what we and others have found before. Further questions are raised, however. Of course, getting cash from sales is one thing, but what about the varied expenses of production? This is tackled in another APRA paper that looks across countries at ‘gross margins’ (incomes minus expenditures) and so calculates returns to land and labour for different crops in different settings. For Zimbabwe, the results show (again) that farming tobacco results in good returns, especially to land (US$1053/ha), but also to labour even though labour costs are high (US$6.4/day). The returns to land for maize are less spectacular (US$781/ha) but returns to labour are higher (US$19.4/day), as maize returns are boosted because of the artificially high value of maize in Zimbabwe (compared to international border prices) and it is a less labour-intensive crop.

Returns are of course highly sensitive to changing prices, with major swings in returns resulting as prices increases or decrease. Intensification – increasing costs on inputs – however may not always be a good idea, as returns may not be sufficient, and this appears to be especially the case for the already high-cost production of tobacco in Zimbabwe, facilitated by contract arrangements with companies. Contract arrangements and facilitation and intermediation of value chains by brokers of different sorts, however, can bring bigger returns for commercial crops such as maize. As the paper concludes, overall, it pays to be a small-scale farmer these days, even with relatively low levels of intensification, as these returns represent reasonable overall incomes for a family, especially if higher than world prices are paid for maize.

Does cash cropping increase seasonal hunger?

How does commercialisation affect seasonal hunger? One of the arguments against cash cropping is that such crops divert effort away from food, leaving people vulnerable. But is this the case? Can people use the cash they earn to buy food and so offset any food deficits? The results from the surveys in another APRA paper show that overall cash cropping reduces seasonal hunger and that this is especially the case for tobacco and food crops (but not soya), and the effect is greatest for asset poor households. ‘Hunger’ during six months of the lean season (November to May) was assessed in relation to people’s recall of whether they had enough to eat during the day for each month and various commercialisation indices were also used (by crop and overall), representing the ratio between sales value and total value. Here, the timing of payments from the tobacco crop is crucial as this happens at the time when food deficits are at the peak.

Other variables that had a positive correlation with reduced seasonal hunger were being a male head of household, having larger cropped area and having access to remittances and off-farm work. Of course, there is variation across households, but the overall conclusion drawn is that supporting cash cropping is not a route to food insecurity. This supports earlier findings in cotton-growing areas, such as Gokwe where in the boom cotton years, people did well.

Who benefits from agricultural commercialisation?

Another important question is who benefits? This basic distributional question requires delving into cross-household comparisons. The averages and median figures presented in these papers do not tell us much about distribution, and especially the implications for particular groups of people, such as women or younger farmers. Here there are wider questions raised about equity in commercialisation trajectories.

Another APRA paper looks at how commercialisation of different crops was related to ‘women’s empowerment’. This was imputed through an aggregate indicator from assessments of whether women primarily managed agricultural plots, decided on how outputs are used, decided on sales and involved in decisions around how crop sales revenue was used. Those households with high levels of commercialisation of tobacco and soya in particular tended not to show indicators of women’s empowerment. As many have pointed out before, these crops are male-dominated, as value chains are highly gendered in Zimbabwean agriculture as an earlier APRA paper discussed.

Longer-term trajectories

A further question not really tackled by these papers is how the surpluses from high returns from commercial agriculture (for some) are spent over time. This is important as the way assets are accumulated affects the wider economy and the broader trajectory of development in an area. Here more longitudinal studies beyond two snapshot panel surveys, as the processes of change are slow and intermittent, and affected by wider political-economic dynamics.

In our historical studies, which overlap with these survey sites in Mvurwi, we see periods of accumulation – associated with good rainfall years and more stable economic and political conditions, such as during the Government of National Unity – and periods of stagnation (such as now), with different impacts on the local economy, household accumulation and also the environment.

Also, over the 20 years since resettlement, the forms of accumulation have shifted. At settlement there was initial investment in land clearing and preparation and the building of homes; this shifted after establishment to investment in transport, mechanisation and intensification of farming, including well-digging irrigation; and more recently there has been a move by some to invest away from the farms in businesses and houses for rental in town. This pattern is important because different people gain from such shifts at different times, with the linkage effects of land reform increasing over time.   

While none of these papers offer anything hugely surprising – (male) farmers in Mazowe all well know that tobacco is profitable but has high inputs costs yet can provide good income and potential for investment – the confirmation of the patterns across sites with in-depth, rigorous quantitative analysis, complemented by econometric models, helps reinforce our understanding, suggesting some important policy directions for the future.

So, do delve into the papers, there’s lots of rich information contained in them all – and some complicated econometric equations too!

This post was written by Ian Scoones and originally appeared on Zimbabweland.

APRA Working Paper 94: The Farm Size-Productivity Relationship: Evidence From Panel Data Analysis of Small- and Medium-Scale Farms in Nigeria

Written by: Oluwatoba Omotilewa, Thomas S. Jayne and Milu Muyanga

The finding that smaller farms are more productive than larger farms has long been documented. At present, evidence in the Sub-Saharan African (SSA) region has been largely limited to data from farms operating 5ha and below. Examining changes in farm size distributions and their relationship with agricultural productivity is important not only for agricultural economists and development researchers but also for evidence-based policymaking which goes beyond the current smallholder-led strategies for development in the region. This study examined the dynamics of farm operations between small-scale farms and medium-scale farms over time in different farm size categories and their relationship with agricultural productivity using farming household data spanning 0–40ha in Nigeria.

Tobacco and agrarian change in southern Africa

Written by: Ian Scoones

A great new special issue – tobacco and transformation – is out in the Journal of Southern African Studies, edited by Martin Prowse and Helena Pérez Niño. With reflections on Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe (mostly), it provides an important overview of a crucial crop, putting it in historical and regional perspective. In many ways the issue nicely complements the earlier issue in the same journal on sugar, making these an important pairing for anyone interested in commercial agriculture in the region (see here too).


Since the beginning of the twentieth century, the southern African region has become a specialised tobacco producing zone, with output now equivalent to that of Brazil, the world’s largest producer. As a high-value, labour-intensive crop that does not only rely on irrigation, it provides significant contributions of foreign exchange to national exchequers and is a major source of rural employment.

As the editors point out in their excellent introduction (free access), research on tobacco has mostly been around substitution of the crop because of tobacco’s negative health effects. While these are very real, the economic contributions of tobacco production cannot be underestimated, nor the influence of the crop on the political trajectories of each of the countries discussed in the special issue.

Transforming production and marketing

Over the years, tobacco production systems have changed significantly. Originally a settler crop in many countries, it was planted on large farms with increasingly mechanised approaches. However, with the growth of contract farming, smallholders are now growing tobacco in increasing numbers. This shift is perhaps especially dramatic in Zimbabwe where land reform resulted in a major overhaul of the sector, with now nearly all tobacco being produced by smallholders, along with some medium-scale A2 farms.

Markets have changed too. In the past, the core markets were Europe and North America, but now Asia and especially China dominate. This results in a different demand, and so changes in the assessment of what is ‘quality’ leaf. In southern Africa air-dried burley tobacco is grown as well as flue-cured Virginia. Each have different markets, with the latter being the premium source. Different areas specialise in different production systems, with Malawi being especially famous for burley and Zimbabwe for Virginia, although both are grown in both countries.

Tobacco politics

International export markets have shaped how finance, contracting arrangements and farm support have operated in the region, and so tobacco has had huge influence on domestic politics. With tobacco initially central to settler estate farming especially in Malawi and Zimbabwe. Negotiating between the state and international (western) capital, white farmers became crucial players in a political economy of tobacco, skilfully gaining support for their enterprises. The strong white farmer tobacco farming lobby was influential in the politics of colonial Zimbabwe, and their economic influence continued after Independence.

After Zimbabwe’s land reform, most such farmers lost their land, but a number continued in the tobacco business, working with international firms, as hired consultants or in some cases as joint venture partners. While many expected the tobacco industry to collapse in Zimbabwe, much to the surprise of many, production rebounded after a few years, soon equalling levels achieved before. Rory Pilosoff and Sibanengi Ncube interview a number of former white tobacco farmers and, although they relay familiar complaints about ‘lower quality’ products by small-scale producers (although of course the new production is now focused on a new market where quality criteria are different to before), the new configuration of the industry is still producing and providing significant demand for displaced farmers’ services who are now deploying their considerable skills and experience in new roles.

Following land reform in Zimbabwe new players came onto the scene, notably the Chinese through the Tian Ze company. The role of Chinese expertise, investment and marketing is a focus of several papers in the issue, with a major shift in political economy, replicated in other countries in the region. Freedom Mazwi looks at so-called ‘joint ventures’ in Zimbabwe, arguing that many have no legal basis and that they involve the reappropriation of land from land reform beneficiaries reversing the gains of redistribution. As tobacco becomes more lucrative and contracting from both Chinese and western sources provides secure finance influential players, often well-connected politically, enter the tobacco business and take over farms.

From the colonial era on, tobacco has shaped politics, generating interest groups, forging alliances and resulting in different sources of rent and patronage for the state and others, as Sibanenge Ncube describes for Zimbabwe in the 1940s and 50s. Tobacco undoubtedly is highly political in southern Africa.

The social dynamics of tobacco

With contract farming being central to new relations between farmers and tobacco capital, new arrangements have been forged. In Malawi, traceability of products is essential for western markets, where issues of child labour rights, environmental regulations and so on are important. In Zimbabwe, contract farming was essential for production, providing finance and easy access to markets, generating many spill-over effects on the wider economy as explained by Moses Moyo for Mazowe. As our open access paper in the issue explains (building on earlier work), processes of differentiation in tobacco farming communities are influenced by access to contracts, with some being unable to afford the risk, while others go it alone.

In other papers, Martin Prowse explores the implications of contracts on tobacco and soya growing in Malawi on intrahousehold gender dynamics, while Edward Makoyo and colleagues look at the role of cooperatives on tobacco growing and Yumi Sakata and others look at producer organisations and unions in Zimbabwe. Across the papers, a number of organisational arrangements from contracts to coops to joint ventures are explored, all with implications for the dynamics of social differentiation, including gender and age dimensions. Tobacco not only shapes politics, but also rural social dynamics.

Future challenges

The conclusion to the special issue concludes with some questions and challenges for future research. Key issues include the long-term environmental costs of tobacco production (notably deforestation for curing and the demand for wetlands/irrigated areas for seedling production); the need for more effective regulation to protect interests in contract arrangements, with a greater balance between state, firm and farmer interests; insights to help reform tobacco value chains so that more value is retained locally; and the wider question of how significant accumulation through the commercial engagement with a vibrant, profitable export industry transforms rural areas, and creates the possibility of longer-term structural transformation.

Although not all the articles are free/open access, the issue is well worth a look (do dig around for other sources on Researchgate or ask the authors for copies). Congratulations to JSAS for another commodity-focused issue, which combines history with economics and politics in a nuanced way. This will be a valuable resource for anyone interested in future patterns of agrarian change in the region.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and originally appeared on Zimbabweland.

The future of Zimbabwe’s agrarian sector: a new book

Written by: Ian Scoones

A new book on land and agriculture Zimbabwe – The Future of Zimbabwe’s Agrarian Sector – is just out with Routledge and edited by Grasian Mkodzongi. It’s fiendishly expensive, but a paperback version is promised soon. Meanwhile be in touch with authors for copies of chapters or look out on Researchgate or other platforms for pre-print versions, as there’s lots of good material.


The ‘new dispensation’: a failure?

The book takes the post-‘coup’ transition to the ‘new dispensation’ after 2017 under President Mnangagwa as its starting point. It asks, how has the ‘open for business’ rhetoric made a difference to the agrarian sector following the land reform in 2000? The introduction argues that “the post-Mugabe era is characterised by a neoliberal macro-economic agenda which has intensified land grabs and resource thefts to the detriment of peasants and other vulnerable groups.”

It is this shift towards a business-oriented, large-scale farming discourse and away from a peasant-centred one that characterised the Mugabe era that has reframed the debate, the book argues. An alliance with Chinese capital (and others) linked to a ‘comprador bourgeoisie’ class connected to ZANU-PF political and military leadership has resulted in resource grabbing on a large scale, undermining the gains of land reform, Mkodzongi argues. The result is intensified class struggle over land, as political elites ally with international capital and foreign powers to acquire resources, using political influence to remove land from those who are out of favour politically or who cannot resist, as in the case of the notorious Chilonga communal area land dispute.

While many recognise the inequities that persist following land reform, with demands for land from youth, women, former farmworkers, displaced urbanites and others, instead the current government’s focus appears to be on improving production efficiencies in more commercial operations through subsidy and other loan schemes (such as the ‘command agriculture’ programme). This shifts the political dynamics of the post-land reform era away from redistribution, reinforcing the power of those who gained land in the reform in medium-scale A2 farms, and supporting the process of consolidating land holdings through joint ventures.

Diverse outcomes

Chapters cover a broad range of themes, highlighting once again the richness of empirical work on-going in Zimbabwe. The book is dedicated to the late, great Sam Moyo, and he would I am sure be impressed by the breadth of work on-going, represented not only in this book but also others (which I will review soon too).

Felix Murimbarimba and I delve into the politics of A2 (medium-scale) farms based on our survey and interview work in Masvingo and Mazowe, looking at the mixed fate of A2 farmers and the influence of political alliances on rural politics. Meanwhile, others look at patterns of investment, particularly in the A1 areas, notable the chapters by Tom and Chipenda, who looks at joint-ventures.

A focus on particular crops is taken by Ncube, Kamuti and Ncube (tobacco) and Taringana (coffee), who all show how smallholders are now growing what were deemed to large-scale commercial crops. As Ndhlovu speculates new forms of locally based agriculture in A1 farms may offer prospects for ‘food sovereignty’.

The new agrarian dynamic is also creating conflicts, displacements and patterns of exclusion and differentiation, with implications for gendered access to resources as Chiweshe and Bhatsara and Batisai and Chipato show in different cases. As the time from the land reform lapses, questions of and the rights of women are brought to the fore, for example. Overall, as we’ve seen in our work again and again, there is a clear vibrancy in the agrarian sector following land reform, but also many problems.

Structural constraints

What is clear is that the ‘new dispensation’ did not resolve these challenges. Maybe it couldn’t. The structural constraints of lack of finance, sanctions and deep corruption all have contributed to lack of action by the new government. The populist policy rhetoric of being ‘open for business’ was largely empty, as action did not follow beyond the opening of resources for grabbing by elites and others. The result has been increasing tensions and a more tense struggle between classes, with the smallholder A1 beneficiaries of land reform pitted against others.

The business-friendly discourse and the land compensation deal with white farmers did not impress western governments who latched on to a particular human rights discourse around political reforms as their central conditionality, preventing the release of strangulating economic sanctions, as Chipuriro and Mkodzongi explain. Despite various policy initiatives, the corruption by political elites has made even the more sensible ones irrelevant, as rent is extracted at every turn whilst political factions vie for power.

The result has been economic collapse, which has massively constrained growth in the agrarian sector. Attempts to woo the Chinese failed as they too were not fooled, and the mega-projects promised did not materialise. Mkodzongi documents this rather sorry tale both in the introduction and conclusion to the book.  

Ways forward?

So, what to do about it? There is a clear failure of the current political dispensation, but Mkodzongi and others are not optimistic about alternatives either. As he notes, “the new neoliberal policy trajectory is in conflict with the ethos of the fast-track land reform, which sought to restructure agrarian relations in favour of the broader majority of Zimbabwe’s citizens, in particular the peasantry”.

As a consequence, a new agrarian-focused politics is required, something hinted at in our chapter, but requiring alliances between those generating production on the A2 farms (not everyone by any means, given patronage allocations) and the more vibrant and more numerous A1 farmers, who have significant electoral influence. A new progressive political coalition together with those in urban areas also struggling over land and livelihoods – as explained by Mujere and Mwatara – is essential. Perhaps this will deliver the ‘national political consciousness’ and ‘ideological clarity’ that Mkodzongi advocates.

However, to be effective, such an alliance must in turn construct coherent policies, deliver security of tenure, provide support for agriculture, develop rural infrastructure, facilitate markets and address the needs of those left behind by the land reform. At the moment, sadly, this looks far off, with any forthcoming election outcome unlikely to resolve these issues, whatever the result.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and originally appeared on Zimbabweland.

ALRE Working Paper 7: Informing the Debate on the Rise of Medium-Scale Farmers in Africa

Written by: Louise Clark

This case study explores how APRA evidence is informing an emerging debate on medium-scale farmers (MSFs) through stronger empirical evidence of the broad variation across different contexts. This research has generated healthy internal debate between APRA teams which is contributing new insights to understanding the drivers of farm size growth and the conditions that enable ‘stepping up’, as well as the policy implications for SSFs who are ‘hanging in’ or ‘dropping out’ of agricultural production.

Urban agriculture: surviving in a collapsing economy

Written by: Ian Scoones

Over the last few weeks, we have looked at urban agriculture in different parts of Zimbabwe; from a city like Masvingo to small towns and growth points like Chikombedzi, Triangle/Hippo Valley, Maphisa, Chatsworth and Mvurwi. In all cases we see the massive growth of urban agriculture. This takes many forms from intensification of backyard plots to open space farming in insecure, but extensive patches to more regularised small farms in urban settings.


Responding to economic chaos

This growth of urban agriculture is a response to the economic chaos that has enveloped Zimbabwe. Rising inflation, diverging exchange rates across multiple currencies and the collapse of the formal sector, with massive lay-offs has put people living in towns in extremely precarious positions.

People have to find ways to survive and nearly everyone has a small plot to provide food, offsetting the escalating costs of purchasing. Small-scale backyard vegetable growing, perhaps with a few mealies, has always been part of urban life, but today urban agriculture is different.

There is greater investment (many new wells, pumps, solar power) and areas planted have expanded massively, outside backyards to nearly every available space. Competition for urban land is intense and brokers and officials are making money from deals as people struggle to claim plots.

With both intensification and extensification, urban agriculture has become much more commercialised, with people selling to traders, supermarkets and engaging in contracting. This in turn is having an effect on rural agricultural supply and marketing, the traditional source of agricultural products in towns, and so patterns of food security.

New jobs in town

Urban agriculture is also creating jobs in town, both formal and informal. Informal jobs in the hustle economy are known as kukurokoza or kungwahva ngwahva (the latter a 2021 single from Qounfuzed). From providing labour for production to offering agricultural support services, employment is being created. This is especially important for young people who may not have land and who have no jobs.

Piece work employment for production starts from land clearing and preparation through to planting, weeding and harvesting. People may be employed to help with sales and marketing too. Others are employed to build pig sties or fowl runs and then feed and even market pigs or chickens for example.

Growing urban production has resulted in huge demand for transport, whether push carts or vans to move crops to markets. As areas cultivated expand, tillage services are in demand, and those with tractors offer ploughing across the open spaces in town. Pest control services are also being offered, with individuals buying knapsack sprayers and chemicals and moving around offering to spray crops in people’s backyards.

As people intensify, the need for water expands, and those offering well digging or borehole installation services are in high demand. Sellers and installers of irrigation equipment are also experiencing a brisk trade, although such products and services are only available for those with money and are only suitable for those with secure plots.

State involvement and politics

As urban agriculture expands, public services are getting involved. Urban agriculture presents a dilemma for town planners and council officials, as a comment on a recent blog in this series noted. They know it’s important and many may have plots themselves, but outdated by-laws from the colonial era notionally make much of such farming illegal.

Meanwhile, agricultural extension agents are beginning to work more in urban areas, offering advice and support to urban farmers. Farmer-to-farmer exchanges are happening as new urban farmers share experiences. Pfumvudza plots can be found, and those engaging get free inputs. As elections near, such subsidised programmes become more important and urban constituencies become significant for the incumbent party who have lost much support to the opposition over the years.

Economic linkages

As with all agriculture, forward and backward linkages associated with intensifying economic activity become important in generating employment opportunities. Urban agriculture not surprisingly shows many similar characteristics to what we seen in rural areas, where agricultural growth since land reform has had spin-off linkage effects in the wider local economy, including small towns situated in rural areas.

With the growth of agriculture in towns themselves, these linkages are being transformed, often to the detriment of rural production and marketing. Some are shifting operations from rural areas to urban areas, moving irrigation equipment, vehicles, grinding mills and so on to towns. With these changes come new patterns of (mostly informal) employment, and new opportunities especially for young people. As demand for urban land spirals not only for building but also farming, those who control land in and around towns become more and more powerful.

As we have discussed in this short blog series, urban agriculture is the centre of both a new politics and a new economy linked to land and agriculture, as well as a new dynamic of food security, with major implications for how people are able to navigate and survive in a collapsing economy.

This is the fourth blog in a short series on urban agriculture. See the other blogs here:

  1. The growth of urban agriculture in Zimbabwe
  2. Changing food systems in Zimbabwe: shifts from rural to urban production
  3. Urban agriculture in Zimbabwe: a photo story

This post was written by Ian Scoones and originally appeared on Zimbabweland

How to respond to ‘drought’: rethinking standard approaches

Written by: Ian Scoones

Over the last four weeks, a blog series has asked what is the best way to respond to ‘drought’? This is an important question for a country like Zimbabwe, and with climate change the question will become even more important. The answer though is not obvious.


First we need to define what is drought in a way that is meaningful to local contexts, going beyond a conventional ‘meteorological’ definition with a focus on rainfall to thinking about the outcomes of multiple, intersecting factors.

Second, we need to understand how farmers respond to rainfall variability, and think about ways of supporting their own practices.

Third, we need to question the quick-fix temptations of technical, external solutions to drought – whether insurance or the whole paraphernalia of early warning, anticipatory actions and social assistance programming – as they frequently incorrectly assume that drought can be managed as a calculable risk (anticipated, predicted and planned for), when in fact we don’t know what the future holds, and uncertainty, even ignorance, prevails.

Finally, this has implications for how responses to droughts and disasters more generally are framed – not as singular events that can be predicted, managed and controlled, but always as uncertain, unfolding processes, where different responses are required, centred on building reliability through new forms of practice and professionalism.

Together these four themes are quite a radical challenge to the standard approaches to social protection, disaster risk management and humanitarian assistance. However a shift from a technical, externally-driven approach to risk management and control to one that starts from understanding local responses to uncertainty and how reliability can be generated in the face of highly variable conditions is one that needs to be taken seriously. This requires some major rethinking of how standard programmes are designed and implemented.

This is the fifth blog in a short series on drought. See the other blogs here:

  1. What is drought? Local constructions, diverse perceptions
  2. Farming with variability: mobilising responses to drought uncertainties in Zimbabwe
  3. Insuring against disaster: the politics of protection
  4. Rethinking disaster responses: from risk to uncertainty

This post was written by Ian Scoones and originally appeared on Zimbabweland

Making the most of the media

Written by: Susanna Cartmell

To disseminate policy-relevant messages based on the Agricultural Policy Research in Africa (APRA) research at country and regional levels, the Information and Communication and Engagement (ICE) team encouraged country teams to build relationships with the media from early on in the programme. This is not something with which APRA researchers had much experience of and the approach was taken up by only a few teams. Nevertheless, with ICE support, those teams that pursued active engagement with the media proved very successful. APRA ICE Insight 2 reflects on the APRA programme’s engagements with the media to identify what went well and key lessons on what could have been improved.


The APRA Malawi team was the first to hold a media event in September 2019 – and, thanks to its success, this approach was highlighted as an example to other APRA teams. The Malawi team shared that, as a result of the event, a WhatsApp group with the journalists had been set up to share updates on publications and events. The event also resulted in a number of articles and radio broadcasts focusing on the potential importance of groundnuts as a commercial and export crop. An Agribusiness Policy Brief focusing on Malawi was also picked up by the Nation newspaper in September 2020. The team’s COVID Country Reports, highlighting the impacts on food systems and livelihoods, were also well reported by the national media in October 2020 and February 2021.

In Tanzania, the APRA country team’s decision to hold a one-day event in October 2020, specifically for print, radio and TV journalists, resulted in a staggering 65 media outputs – with coverage in seven Swahili language newspapers, five English language newspapers, four TV/video channels, five multi-media channels, and 11 different blog channels. Further extensive coverage was obtained after inviting the media to their national stakeholder event in October 2021.

In Ghana, the APRA team invited the media to an oil palm research dissemination workshop in March 2021, which resulted in good coverage across radio stations, online news sites and newspapers. The articles and coverage included calls to form an Oil Palm Board to effectively govern and handle challenges confronting the sector. Similarly, APRA-convened workshops on the cocoa sector in Ghana resulted in coverage of the APRA team’s identification of the high cost of inputs and the need for innovative, sustainable micro-credit support services to cocoa farmers. ‘Multiple platforms for media engagements, such as online news portals, radio, print media, as well as radio and television stations, among others, have been useful,’ stated Louis Hodey, APRA Ghana researcher. Fred Dzanku, APRA Ghana country lead, reinforced that point, commenting, ‘The push (from ICE) to engage the media made it happen.’

Key lessons

Consistent efforts to engage with the media pays dividends: Where teams engaged with print and broadcast journalists and specifically invited them to APRA events, extensive media coverage was achieved. Holding a dedicated event for journalists allows an opportunity for them to learn, ask questions, and take time to read material provided, and is more likely to result in future interest/engagement. However, these efforts/networks should be established from the start of a research programme and not left until towards the end. Building networks and trust between researchers and the media takes time and is an investment worth making.

Additional support to research teams on media engagement improves understanding: A revealing comment from one APRA researcher noted that, ‘Country research teams should be funded to organise at least one media outreach programme each year to interact with media houses and enlighten them on how they could help to influence policy by working with APRA.’ Such an outreach programme could include organising a media field visit to really enable journalists to understand the research and get an insight into farming livelihoods and agricultural commercialisation. Efforts like these take time and investment to organise effectively but, again, reap rewards in terms of building media capacity and strengthening researcher/media understanding and networking.

Investing in media training for researchers builds confidence: Providing specific training on how to engage effectively with the media and how to write/provide good, clear key messages for outlets would also enhance researcher confidence and lead to enhanced engagement and media coverage.

Engaging with media networks creates a multiplier effect: Working with African correspondents and tapping into African media networks to reach an African audience with relevant research results significantly increases coverage achieved – and is more relevant than making efforts to only publish in UK and international publications, which is challenging to achieve.

Communicating new evidence through working papers and briefs

Written by: Olivia Frost

Through in-depth, interdisciplinary, comparative research across nine countries, the Agricultural Policy Research in Africa (APRA) has generated high-quality evidence and policy-relevant insights on more inclusive pathways to agricultural commercialisation. To disseminate its research findings and policy messages, APRA had a multi-format strategy to produce a portfolio of mutually-reinforcing publications to inform a broad spectrum of actors. APRA ICE Insight 3 evaluates APRA’s publication outputs to understand what went well, and to identify what improvements could have been made.


Production of APRA outputs was supported by the Information, Communication and Engagement (ICE) team, which – after internal and external review – took responsibility for style and editing and, to some extent, content coherence. To maintain a consistent style across all APRA publications, researchers were provided with an APRA ‘style guide’ which, in addition to providing general writing style points, also covered the use of the APRA logo and images, information on referencing, and copyrights and gaining the correct permissions for tables and figures.

All Working Papers, Policy Briefs and Research Notes were published in a PDF format and were freely accessible on the APRA website, as well as the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) OpenDocs website. After publication, APRA teams were encouraged to write a short blog to reflect the key messages of the paper in more accessible language, so as to be relevant and understandable to a wider audience. These were then included in APRA newsletters regularly sent to stakeholders, as well as disseminated via Twitter and Facebook.

APRA researchers emphasised how helpful the ICE team’s support was in promoting publications. ‘The support and services provided [by ICE] were exemplary,’ noted Dawit Alemu, APRA Ethiopia country lead. An external review of APRA’s publications also highlighted that ‘the quality and reach of publications has been significantly enhanced by support from the ICE team, who were available throughout the programme and highly valued by the Africa-based research teams.’

Overall, APRA researchers highlighted ICE’s thorough editing when asked what went well in APRA’s publication process. ‘The process for publishing is very meticulous and rigorous’, stated Hannington Odame, APRA regional hub coordinator for East Africa. Yet, while APRA’s extensive review process added to the rigour of outputs, it also took a considerable amount of time to complete and a great deal of admin time to manage. Some researchers raised the issue of time constraints, stating that more time to complete the publication process would have been better. Others felt that a ‘focus on fewer things for higher impact delivery’ would have been beneficial. ‘Reduce the number of working papers and increase the number of briefs and blogs, so people with limited time can quickly get the message,’ suggested Ntengua Mdoe, APRA researcher in East Africa.

Another challenge was that despite circulating a detailed APRA Style Guide document to all researchers on several occasions, many maintained the style with which they were most familiar, particularly when it came to referencing. Researchers also found producing overarching briefs challenging – and the final outputs often required completely revising and several rounds of redrafts by the ICE team.

Key lessons

Maintaining standards and assuring quality: Providing detailed guidelines, as well as an appropriate technical procedure for quality assurance, and ensuring researchers know where to access these, is key to producing quality outputs.

Ensuring consistent referencing: To reduce the burden on researchers and editors, a key recommendation would be to purchase a licence for automatic referencing software for the programme (e.g., Endnote, Mendeley, etc.) and provide training on how to use it.

Strengthening capacity: Providing training on how to write Policy Briefs at the start of APRA and having a dedicated team of policy experts to review each brief and provide feedback would have provided researchers with more support, and strengthened the final policy messages. Although APRA organised several ‘writeshops’ for its research teams to produce and review draft outputs, more investment could be made in these intensive, peer-to-peer learning and writing sessions at key points in the paper production process.

Investing in social media pays big dividends

Written by Sophie Reeve

Over the past six years, the use of social media has been a vital part of the Agricultural Policy Research in Africa (APRA’s) communications strategy in raising awareness of the programme’s activities and outputs. The Impact, Communication and Engagement (ICE) team has been responsible for tracking the impact of social media activities, including sharing APRA’s publications and news on events, and promoting APRA’s key research messages. APRA ICE Insight 1 explores this impact, what went well, and what could be improved as future programmes plan their own social media efforts.


Since 2016, APRA’s social media profile was embedded within the well-established online channels – including Facebook and Twitter – of the Future Agricultures Consortium (FAC), the predecessor programme to APRA, with a view to build upon FAC’s followings and enhance APRA’s visibility.

The frequency of posting on Twitter increased more significantly from 2018 with the launch of a revised APRA digital strategy, when one to two Tweets were sent out per week to advertise a new blog, paper or news article on APRA webpages. As a result, Twitter impressions (a total tally of all the times the Tweet has been seen) increased significantly – from 7.5k in February 2017 to 20.9k in February 2018. The number of followers also increased by 13% during this time, from 14.7k to 16.6k.

From 2019, an average of two Twitter ‘Ads’ to promote particular posts also ran monthly to drive more social media users to APRA’s webpages and increase engagement with the posts themselves. ‘The ICE team shared important information on Twitter to increase the visibility of our APRA research outputs,’said Abebaw Assaye, APRA Ethiopia researcher. As of April 2022, FAC’s Twitter following had reached 21.8k and, in January 2022, monthly Twitter impressions reached 95.7k. The engagement rate had also increased to 5.7%.

As with Twitter, from 2018, APRA-related content strategically increased on FAC’s Facebook page; by February 2022, the number of FAC’s Facebook fans had increased by over 80%. The ICE team started posting roughly three to five times a week, highlighting various APRA publications and events. The team also leveraged Facebook’s costed ‘boost’ function to increase the reach of APRA’s research messages to a relevant audience: a boosted post from 20 January 2022 reached almost 38,000 people and achieved 888 ‘engagements’ (likes/shares). ‘The ICE team helped us engage more in the social media space, which we hadn’t achieved previously,statedFred Dzanku,APRA Ghana country lead.

The ICE team’s work on Twitter and Facebook was particularly successful in increasing the visibility of, and access to, APRA’s blogs (of which over 200 are available) and publications. ‘The social media posts helped disseminate our research output to a wider audience,’said Kofi Takyi Asante, APRA Ghana researcher.

These social media platforms were also extremely useful during the promotion of APRA’s in-person events, such as conferences and workshops to enhance awareness and engagement through live tweeting/posts on Facebook. WhatsApp also proved an important tool in the planning and coordination of APRA’s online events, and for communicating with those involved during proceedings.

Key lessons

Based on the APRA experience, lessons can be learned on what would be replicated for a similar programme – and what could be done differently. Making the most of promotional social media tools, such as Twitter Ads and Facebook’s boost feature, proved significant in increasing post reach and audience engagement – and at a small cost – so is an approach that is most definitely recommended.

In terms of what could be done differently, creating an APRA account on LinkedIn would have been beneficial in raising the organisation’s professional profile. Providing social media training and support to the research teams on how to set up their own accounts, and share and engage with posts, would also have been useful to further increase the traction and reach of research outputs.

Other suggestions from the APRA teams included promoting older publications to rekindle people’s interest in the material, and creating more linkages with the social media accounts of organisations affiliated with APRA researchers to increase sharing of the key messages.

Raising the profile of agricultural policy research

Written by: Susanna Cartmell

Throughout the Agricultural Policy Research in Africa (APRA) Programme of the Future Agricultures Consortium, country research teams were encouraged to engage at district and national levels. Towards the end of APRA, during the latter part of 2021, each country team held final district and national-level events in order to share research findings and highlight policy implications. APRA ICE Insight 6 evaluates APRA’s national engagement to understand what went well, and to identify what improvements could have been made.


Ethiopia

Most of the APRA Ethiopia engagement events were aligned and mainstreamed to government and stakeholder-organised events related to rice. ‘Our engagement was a key driver for rice to be considered among the five priority commodities in the National Agricultural Investment Plan, and in the agreement reached to develop a national rice flagship programme,’ stated Dawit Alemu, APRA Ethiopia country lead.

One reflection, however, was that the APRA Ethiopia team felt they had not provided sufficient attention to media coverage for all events; it was only during the national closing event that the media were officially invited and good coverage was achieved.

Tanzania

The APRA Tanzania researchers’ engagement events culminated in district-level meetings to share findings, as well as a national engagement event in October 2021. ‘Engaging stakeholders at the beginning of APRA was very good, as they were then aware of what APRA was about when we started sharing findings,’ stated Aida Isinka, APRA Tanzania country lead. ‘However, stakeholders’ interest was higher later in the programme when we had tangible findings to deliver,’ she explains.

Nevertheless, the Tanzania team reported that it often proved difficult to engage high-level policymakers due to their busy schedules and the bureaucracy of reaching out to them. The high turnover rate of political appointees also proved difficult, but buy-in from this level of policymaker ensured greater take-up of APRA findings.

Nigeria

The Nigeria Work Stream 1 team organised policy dialogues, as well as research result dissemination and community feedback sessions in local government areas. Attendees were carefully selected to include traditional rulers, local government officials, state government officials, women leaders, medium-scale farmers, small-scale farmers and farmer association leaders. These representatives appreciated being included as they are often not provided with the opportunity to input their feedback and contribute to the policy formulation process.

This proved to be a very effective approach in engaging all participants, with the communities feeling connected with the issues raised by APRA’s research. A lot of ideas from the sessions helped frame key questions discussed at the subsequent national-level dialogue, which was held online.

Ghana

Engagement activities in Ghana were structured towards different levels of stakeholders for maximum impact, and all events had a media presence for the purpose of disseminating the findings more widely. Local-level engagement events were extremely useful, because these provided farmers from the study communities with the opportunity to provide feedback on research findings. The engagements also brought researchers in touch with officials with whom relationships have been developed beyond APRA.

Despite the success of the events, however, the Ghana team felt that a local communications person should have been appointed to facilitate engagements. Instead, researchers were tasked with policy engagement activities; this was a daunting task as they had received no real training.

Zimbabwe

The Zimbabwe team’s engagement with stakeholders from the outset made it much easier for research outcomes to be shared throughout the programme. This positive early engagement also meant the team’s local and national stakeholder meetings drew a large number of attendees, and involved vibrant exchanges of ideas.

To enhance stakeholder engagement and attract greater value from the research outputs, the APRA Zimbabwe team recommended that, in future, research teams be trained in communications from the onset, or communication experts should be recruited for local teams.

Key lessons

  • It is important to think carefully about the policy influencing strategy from the very beginning of a programme and remain flexible during its implementation as well as plan for policy influencing beyond the life of the programme.
  • For successful and impactful engagement, it is important to have dedicated communication experts to provide support to research teams; it is recommended to have such communication expertise at national (or regional level) and not just at the overall secretariat level.
  • Communication and engagement should not just happen at the end of the programme and only in big events; this process should be ongoing from the start to build up relationships and awareness of the research issues and outcomes. Opportunities for engagement should be taken up by participating in other organisation’s events, meeting with individual stakeholders, as well as organising designated programme events.
  • It is critical to keep in mind that communication and engagement should also occur at the district/state level, not just at national level, so that communities involved in the research study areas have an opportunity to provide feedback on research findings and to provide insights into required policy changes.

e-Dialogues spark debate on the dynamics of agricultural commercialisation

Written by Susanna Cartmell

In early 2022, as the Agricultural Policy Research in Africa (APRA) programme of the Future Agricultures Consortium (FAC) was coming to an end, an e-Dialogue series, Towards an Equitable and Sustainable Transformation of Food Systems, was held in partnership with the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network and Foresight4Food. These virtual events were designed to replace an international conference that was part of APRA’s original end-of-programme plan before the COVID-19 crisis prevented large, physical gatherings. APRA ICE Insight 4 looks at their impact, what worked well, and what could have been improved.


The e-Dialogue series consisted of three online Zoom sessions led by APRA over January–March 2022: 1) ‘Emerging Challenges and Regional Realities’; 2) ‘COVID-19 and its Effects on Local Food Systems and Rural Livelihoods’; and 3) ‘Transition Pathways and Strategies for Supporting More Equitable and Resilient Food Systems in Africa’. The three e-Dialogues brought together APRA researchers and expert commentators from across sub-Saharan Africa, as well as a wider audience, including members of the media. The objective of these dialogues was to examine evidence and lessons from APRA’s six-year collaborative research programme (2016–2022) analysing the dynamics of agricultural commercialisation processes, agrarian change and rural transformation in the region.

Ahead of each of the e-Dialogue events, the Impact, Communication and Engagement (ICE) team provided APRA researchers with guidelines for what to include in their five-minute PowerPoint presentations, including the number and design of slides and key research areas to highlight. The PowerPoints were reviewed by ICE for editing and to raise comments where the text was not clear or concise enough.

Practise presentation sessions were also organised to give the researchers an opportunity to test their internet connectivity, ensure they were speaking to time, and to develop their presentation style for optimum audience engagement and interest. The practise sessions predominantly focused on the presentation content i.e., encouraging speakers to ‘tell a story’ by including personal reflections/examples of people they had met during field work, and to focus on their research key findings and implications rather than study design. This preparatory work and presentation training sessions proved worthwhile, with general appreciation received from the APRA teams: ‘The internal discussion and feedback prior to the final presentation was important to sharpen points and arguments to suit the audience,’ said Aida Isinika, APRA Tanzania country lead.  

The feedback

The topics selected and content of discussions was appreciated by the general audience – as shown in responses to an external feedback survey: ‘I found all the interventions interesting because the speakers highlighted the positive and negative aspects for different areas of Africa, giving a broad picture of the situation dealt with,’ revealed one e-Dialogue survey respondent.

During the sessions, attendees were encouraged to add their comments/queries to the Zoom ‘chat box’, and to the comments box on Facebook, and the facilitators would then select the most pertinent to put to the speakers. Feedback from the teams – as well as the e-Dialogue participants responding to a short survey – indicated a wish for questions to come directly from participants. ‘I think the online events can be more interactive by inviting verbal comments from participants,’an e-Dialogue survey respondent stated.

Other insights from the researchers and ICE team on the lessons learnt for running e-Dialogues include: 1) Having sufficient time to organise virtual events is essential to allow for a well-thought-out agenda to be prepared and for speakers, commentators and moderators to be approached and well briefed. Adequate time to advertise the event and solicit sufficient numbers of registrants from a diverse range of stakeholders is also necessary; 2) Providing a brief of the event and clear guidelines to speakers on the topic and expectations (including time of presentations/commentary) is highly recommended to ensure that everyone is clear on the theme and direction for discussions; 3) Having even a short presentation training session of 30-45 minutes proved extremely helpful to researchers and is a valuable investment to ensure that key messages are highlighted and honed.

ALRE Research Note 6: ALRE Report on Evidence Demand on Inclusive Agricultural Commercialisation in Africa

Written by: Louise Clark and Joe Taylor

The Agricultural Policy Research in Africa (APRA) programme has generated new evidence and insights into different pathways to inclusive agricultural commercialisation. As part of APRA, the Accompanied Learning on Relevance and Effectiveness (ALRE) team worked to understand how evidence demand enabled researchers to identify and refine the most relevant and insightful policy messages; in turn encouraging them to go beyond mere analysis of the context and problem and consider how their evidence offered potential solutions to specific policy questions. Insights on evidence demand from ALRE-facilitated activities and events are outlined in this paper.

The power of blogs to share research and communicate policy lessons

Written by Olivia Frost

Over the course of the Agricultural Policy Research in Africa (APRA) Programme, researchers produced over 150 publications, including Working Papers, Briefs, COVID-19 Papers, Journal Articles and several books. The intended audience of these publications varied, from the academic community to national and regional policymakers and other stakeholders. However, a key approach taken by APRA’s Information, Communication and Engagement (ICE) team to further the reach of these publications was to support the researchers to publish weekly blogs. APRA ICE Insight 5 explores the use of the blogs to identify what went well, and what could have been improved to expand their impact even further.


Blogs, ranging from 500 to 1,000 words, were used to condense the key insights and messages from longer, more technical publications, particularly highlighting valuable findings and policy takeaways, into a shorter, more accessible and relevant format. With over 200 blogs published since 2018, these outputs proved highly valuable in promoting APRA publications and events, receiving thousands of viewings from a diverse audience and leading to significant subsequent downloads of the related research outputs.

As each APRA output was finalised for publishing, the ICE team reached out to the author(s) to request a blog to promote the research and ICE support was provided in producing this content to ensure it was well-written, easy to understand, and formatted consistently. When necessary, comments were added to request further explanation or clarification of certain details. At least one image was included with each blog provided by the authors where possible (or otherwise sourced by the ICE team), which often depicted the team during various research stages, such as the data collection fieldwork undertaken with local communities. ‘The ICE team were very persistent and supportive in getting blogs out of research teams,’ said Adebayo Aromolaran, APRA Nigeria researcher.

During the APRA programme, blogs regularly received over 1,000 unique page views (number of individuals visiting the webpage). Overall, the 210 blogs received a total of 105,000 views and represent 46 per cent of all APRA page views. Of the 20 most-visited webpages on the Future Agricultures Consortium website, blogs accounted for 13 – a significant proportion. In addition, visitors’ average viewing time for blogs was over four minutes, indicating that visitors have read the content rather than skimming through it or opening the webpage and exiting quickly.

Developing blogs has been an invaluable learning tool for APRA researchers. Not only has the process enabled them to explore new ways to distil key messages, but it has allowed them to see how sharing their work in a more concise, accessible format ensures wide dissemination and enhanced engagement of their research. And whilst researchers were initially resistant and rather reluctant to write blogs, at the end of the programme, the collaborative process of reviewing and editing the blogs between the ICE team and the authors was deemed by APRA researchers as ‘valuable’, ‘rigorous’, and ‘timely’, and was highlighted as a successful part of the ICE team’s work. ‘The ICE team’s untiring support, even in reducing the blogs to an acceptable word count without losing the essence and main message in the blog, has been phenomenal,’ stated Masautso Chimombo, APRA Malawi researcher.

The primary message from the research teams’ feedback was that blogs are a valuable and worthwhile endeavour. However, the most notable areas for improvement for any future programme include: 1) providing more comprehensive guidelines and/or training on writing in a concise, reader-friendly, accessible format from the start of the programme; 2) facilitating improved photography among research teams; 3) providing support to research teams to develop their social media presence; and 4) making blogs available in a pdf, printer-friendly format on the research programme website to increase accessibility and usability/sharing of the blogs.

Changing farm structure and agricultural commercialisation in Nigeria

Written by: Milu Muyanga and Yanjanani Lifeyo

Much of sub‐Saharan Africa, including Nigeria, is experiencing major changes in farmland ownership patterns. Among all farms below 100ha in size, the share of land on small‐scale farms (SSFs) under 5ha has declined over the last two decades. Medium‐scale farms (MSFs) (typically defined as farm holdings between 5 and 50ha) account for a rising share of total farmland, and the number of these farms is growing rapidly. The implications of such changes are explored further here and in APRA Working Paper 93.


African policy makers and development organisations are increasingly interested in learning whether new trends in farm size are beneficial for SSF households, who still constitute the vast majority of rural households in Africa. For instance, questions being raised around this change include, what are the pathways into medium-scale farming? Are these pathways being taken up by farmers who started farming with SSFs and have graduated to MSFs (known as stepping up)? Or are medium-scale farmers using non-farm incomes to latterly start MSFs – known as (stepping in)? What are the characteristics of MSFs? What are the implications of such dynamics on rural youth land accessibility and out-migration? Are there any spillover effects from medium- to small-scale farmers? Is the growth in MSFs impacting the economic and social wellbeing of the millions of smallholders around them? Are there differences in agricultural commercialisation between SSFs and MSFs?

A new APRA study by Muyanga et al. (2022), conducted in Nigeria, attempts to answer some of the above questions. The research used data from an APRA-Nigeria two-wave household panel survey dataset from the states of Ogun and Kaduna. The first wave (conducted in April/May 2018) encompassed 1,010 MSFs and 1,099 SSFs, and the second wave (conducted in December 2020) covered 643 MSFs and 662 SSFs.

Stepping up and stepping in

The study revealed that over 50 per cent of the medium-scale farmers in 2020 had stepped up from small-scale farming, while the rest were investor farmers who had stepped into medium-scale farming from the non-farm sector. Of those who stepped up, about 45 per cent did so before 2018 and remained as medium-scale farmers in 2020, while 5 per cent stepped up between 2018 and 2020. In the study area, inheritance remained the most important source of access to farmland – across both farm scale categories and for both survey periods. The study also found that access to land markets assisted SSFs in expanding and stepping up to MSFs between 2018 and 2020.

Informal interactions were found to exist between MSFs and SSFs in the same neighborhood, especially in relation to extension services, farm inputs, and access to tractors and other farm implement rentals. Small-scale farmers are able to learn from medium-scale farmers in these interactions, whilst medium-scale farmers benefit from labour from the smallholders. In terms of commercialisation, the study revealed that MSFs were consistently more commercialised than SSFs in both input and output markets in 2018 and 2020. It was also found that the engagement of SSF households with input markets declined in 2020 relative to 2018, whilst that of MSF households increased.

Whose better off?

A welfare analysis of farming households using the income poverty index showed that MSF households were generally better off than SSF households. In addition, we found that MSF households that had transitioned into medium-scale from small-scale farming were poorer than the investor farm households who had stepped directly into medium-scale farming.

MSF households tended to be better off than SSF households in terms of micronutrient intake adequacy among women. Also, women in MSF households were better off nutritionally than those in households that had consistently remained SSFs, irrespective of the state in which the household was located. The study found that SSF households were generally more food insecure compared with MSF households. Further, women in MSF households that transitioned from small-scale were more empowered than those from consistently SSF households.

Farming with variability: mobilising responses to drought uncertainties in Zimbabwe

Written by: Ian Scoones

Climate change is generating greater variability within and across seasons. This is requiring new responses among farmers in Masvingo province in Zimbabwe. Today, farmers must adapt, be flexible and agile and respond to uncertain seasons as they unfold. This requires new skills and approaches; not just from farmers, but also from development agencies who are hoping to assist rural people cope with drought.


Shifting responses, changing droughts

There are strong memories of drought (or rather ‘nzara’, see previous blog) among farmers in Masvingo. During our visits earlier in the year many recalled past events. The 1991-92 drought was firmly etched on their memories, while older people recalled the droughts of 1982-84. These days the memories of 1947 (associated with the distribution of ‘Kenya’ yellow maize) are disappearing, but drought is a recurrent phenomenon central to how histories are recalled in rural areas, as we explored in our book Hazards and Opportunities over 25 years ago.

But how people have responded over time and how different ‘droughts’ have been experienced is highly contrasting. Some droughts are recalled as ones affecting cattle, but not people; others are the opposite. Some affected everyone all over the area, meaning real shortages of food and dependence on hand-outs, while others were quite localised and food could be purchased in nearby districts. As discussed in last week’s blog, drought is not a singular phenomenon.

One thing people mentioned again and again was that droughts today are so varied. It is not just a simple failure of ‘the rains’, but the problem of increasing variability. Sometimes there’s very heavy rain, then nothing for weeks. In the ‘old days’ rain – if it came – would be steady and continuous, soaking the land, they say. This is much more effective for crops than the rains today, when heavy rains can destroy crops through waterlogging and wind and rain damage.

As many climatologists have argued, it is not the absolute amount of rain that is changing with climate change, but its variability. This is certainly the experience in our Masvingo study areas.

Land reform and resilience

We were discussing with farmers in our A1 resettlement area study sites across Masvingo province, from the very dry south to the relatively wetter northern parts of the area. One of the common narratives that we heard was that today we don’t suffer from drought as much as we did before. This seemed to run counter to the arguments about climate change and the frequency of events that were recalled. Why was this?

The answer of course was that land reform has created a buffer against the effects of drought by providing more land with better soils and the ability to accumulate assets that can be used to improve agriculture and weather a lean period. Land reform was thus an impressive boost to resilience, although of course not usually discussed in those terms. This applies to nearly everyone as even those who have not managed to accumulate from agriculture significantly are able to gain farm employment from others.

However, even with larger areas of land and accumulated farm assets, smallholder farmers in the land reform areas must still learn to cope with the high levels of rainfall variability in order to avoid ‘nzara’. This requires skill and aptitude and some well-honed practices.

From prediction to performance

In the past, rainfall patterns were more predictable, forecasts for the season were sometimes reasonably good. There was a standard movement of the ‘inter-tropical convergence zone’ southwards and the nightly bulletins on TV would document its position. More broadly, historical analysis of climate records show a cyclical pattern of wetter and drier periods over around seven years over many decades that seem to suggest some type of pattern. This is no longer the case.

In our discussions, farmers pointed to their own forms of prediction that had been used in the past: certain types of bird being present, with certain calls; the flowering of particular trees; the formations of certain clouds; or the strength and direction of wind. These would provide short-term predictions of what might happen in the next days, but even these local prediction mechanisms frequently seem to fail these days.

As we sat in one farmer’s compound, the rain was pouring down only a kilometre away, but right there it was completely dry. This variability means a different response. Farmers were unanimous in their rejection of formal predictions, as being useless today – whether from the met department or from prophets or priests. “This is ‘fake news”, someone proclaimed, continuing, “if you follow it, you can make a serious error.”

What’s the alternative to following predictions? The answer nearly everyone gave was ‘planning’, being ready for any contingency. Having your seeds and fertiliser available, making sure you have a fit span of animals for ploughing, working out how you can divert if the rains failed – say from investing lots of effort in the ‘outfield’ to more focused, intensive gardening, where you can manage the soil, irrigate and so on.

During our discussions, lots of examples were given of how, during a highly variable season like the one being experienced, different strategies were pursued. This required flexibility, and of course resources (labour, inputs and so on) to be able to switch between options. This is the farming ‘performance’ that everyone must follow, where there are diverse scripts and different players.

This is very different to the standard packages or the technocratic solutions of ‘climate-smart’ agriculture. Even when these are useful, they must be adapted. The fertiliser recommendations from the extension workers must be changed to fit the season, even the micro-plot. As discussed in a recent blog, the no-till practice Pfumvudza must equally be changed, bigger or smaller pits, more or less mulch, extra ridges to divert water if there’s too much.

In the uncertain world of today, no one size fits all. Coping with drought and avoiding hunger requires much skill, and careful contingency planning.

Embracing uncertainty

As farmers have had to over the last decades in Masvingo, a shift in support more attuned to uncertainty rather than predictive risk will require new ways of doing things, as we highlight in a paper on rethinking humanitarian and social assistance in ‘crisis’ situations. Unfortunately, as discussed in the next blog, this is not yet happening.

As I discussed in a recent book chapter, perhaps these practices – centred on embracing uncertainty, living with and from variability – are the future, not the frequently rigid and standardised forms of humanitarian and social protection responses we see offered by the state or aid agencies. development agencies.

This is the second blog in a short series on ‘drought’. See the first blog here.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and originally appeared on Zimbabweland

ALRE Research Note 5: Lessons Learnt From Delivering the Agricultural Policy Research in Africa (APRA) Programme

Written by: Louise Clark and Martin Whiteside

The Agricultural Policy Research in Africa (APRA) programme was a six-year (2016–2022), £7 million research initiative of the Future Agricultures Consortium (FAC), to produce high-quality evidence to inform policy and practice on future agricultural commercialisation options and investments in sub-Saharan Africa. This document summarises the key lessons learnt during the six years of the APRA programme, to provide advice for the future planning of evidence to policy programmes.

Journal Article: Does Women’s Engagement in Sunflower Commercialization Empower Them? Experience From Singida region, Tanzania 

Written by: Devotha B. Mosha, John Jeckoniah and Gideon Boniface

Empowering women within sunflower value chains can create significant development opportunities for them and generate benefits for their families. This paper asks whether women’s engagement in sunflower commercialization influences their levels of empowerment. The paper uses data from a 2018 study conducted by Agricultural Policy Research in Africa. A cross-sectional research design was used, and data were collected using mixed methods involving primary, qualitative, and quantitative methods as well as secondary data from the literature. A total of 600 farm household heads and 205 focus group participants (7–15) from 15 villages were selected for the study. Qualitative and quantitative data were subjected to content and econometric analysis respectively, with the help of Microsoft Excel and Statistical Package for the Social Sciences programs. The findings revealed that female household heads tend to benefit less than men from sunflower commercialization. Sunflower commercialization had a positive but insignificant influence on women’s empowerment: the study found that low levels of access to and control over productive resources resulted in low agricultural productivity, which affects empowerment levels. However, household commercialization involving all crops did have a positive and significant impact on the empowerment of women because non-cash crops were more likely to be retained by women, even when commercialized. This calls for policies that support and promote a diversified portfolio of livelihood options for women farmers in Singida region.

ALRE Working Paper 6: Rice: APRA’s Contribution to Informing and Influencing Policy Debates Around Rice in East Africa

Written by: Joe Taylor and Melanie Connor

Rice production across Africa varies in many aspects due to socio-political, climatic, and environmental differences in the region. The research and outreach activities of the Agricultural Policy Research in Africa (APRA) programme aimed to generate policy-relevant insights on more inclusive pathways to agricultural commercialisation, particularly in East Africa, where in-depth mixed methods research was conducted by partners. This Working Paper explores these efforts to identify their impact and any lessons learned for improvement in future programmes.

ALRE Working Paper 5: Accompanied Learning: Reflections on How ALRE Enhanced APRA’s Relevance and Effectiveness

Written by: Louise Clark

This case study explores the claim that the Accompanied Learning for Relevance and Effectiveness (ALRE) approach contributed to stronger relevance and effectiveness of the Agricultural Policy Research in Africa (APRA) research programme. This report outlines the accompanied learning function of the ALRE team and how this ‘critical friend’ role supported APRA research teams in defining and reviewing their impact pathways, identifying and refining emerging evidence ‘nuggets’, and considering how to frame these insights to gain traction with specific policy debates and discourse.

APRA ICE Insight 6: Raising the Profile of Agricultural Policy Research: National Engagement as a Pathway to Change

Written by: Susanna Cartmell, Alice Mutimer, Sophie Reeve and Olivia Frost

Throughout the Agricultural Policy Research in Africa (APRA) Programme of the Future Agricultures Consortium, country research teams were encouraged to engage at district and national levels. Towards the end of APRA, during 2021, each country team held final district and national level events in order to share research findings and highlight policy implications. This report evaluates APRA’s national engagement to understand what went well, and to identify what improvements could have been made.

Agricultural commercialisation and rural employment

Written by: Fred Dzanku

The seasonal nature of agricultural production under rainfed conditions in most parts of rural Ghana, as in other sub-Saharan countries, makes employment in small-scale agriculture alone inadequate for improving the wellbeing of most rural households. Boosting commercial agriculture could be the key to generating employment – not only within agriculture but also in the non-agricultural sector due to linkages between the farm and non-farm economy. Within this context, this blog reflects on the findings of APRA Working Paper 92, and addresses the following questions: What is the association between agricultural commercialisation and rural employment? What are the returns to agricultural employment in a high agriculture commercialisation zone, and how does it compare with non-agricultural employment? Are farm and non-farm employment counterparts or competitors in a high agriculture commercialisation zone?


Our study looked at commercial agricultural households in south-western Ghana between 2017 and 2019 using panel surveys and qualitative interviews. A key finding from this research was that, in spite of inefficient food markets – whereby high temporal and spatial transaction costs lead to high food price volatility and negative impacts on household welfare – farmers in the oil-palm belt of south-western Ghana are not afraid to risk dedicating most of their land and farm labour to the production of non-food items, such as oil palm and cocoa. For instance, our study found that, on average, 76% of farmer’s land and over 80% of household members were involved in the  commercial agricultural enterprise – often the production of such non-food items, which have to be traded in order to procure food.           

Under-employment in agriculture

Undoubtedly, increasing agricultural commercialisation implies increased market participation; thus, resulting in higher demand for production factors, including labour. Yet, despite households’ high orientation towards commercial agriculture, farming alone does not provide full employment for most working-age household members. Our findings show that farmers only worked about 61 days per year on the farm, on average, indicating the presence of underemployment if agriculture were the only source of rural employment. This suggests that non-farm activities are important for generating employment among rural workers. Additionally, we find that even among highly-commercialised farm households, non-crop income constitutes more than half of total household income, with off-farm accounting for the bulk of non-crop income. More so, rural off-farm employment accounts for the bulk of the observed differences in household incomes among households.

Returns to agricultural and non-agricultural employment

Returns to farm labour were about US$2,000 per worker, and increased by 12% between 2017 and 2019. While these average returns equated to well above the yearly international poverty line of around US$694, one-third of farm workers achieved returns below the international poverty line, showing high levels of inequality in the distribution of returns. What about returns to non-farm employment? It is important to recognise that 45% of households in our study did not earn any income from the supply of labour to rural non-farm employment activities, but rural off-farm employment accounted for 28% of household income. That said, returns to rural non-farm employment – even in the high agricultural commercialisation zone – were nearly 1.5 times the returns to on-farm work.

Farm and non-farm employment: Counterparts or competitors?

Farmers in rural Ghana rarely have access to any agricultural credit, particularly formal credit. They have to finance their farm production activities using income from crop sales and/or off-farm income. In general, however, households that have high levels of crop commercialisation tend to rely less on rural off-farm employment, suggesting that the two activities generally compete. Rural off-farm employment was also found to be more important for households at lower levels of commercialisation than for those at higher levels of the commercialisation distribution.

Reflections for policymakers and practitioners

Our findings highlight certain relationships between agricultural commercialisation and rural unemployment in southwestern Ghana, and indicate key recommendations for policy and development practice. First, rather than exclusively focusing on handouts to farmers, such as purchase input subsidies, we propose that increasing the development of more inclusive infrastructural improvements in rural transport and oil palm processing would bolster smallholder participation in rewarding oil palm commercialisation channels, and potentially yield better household welfare outcomes. Encouragingly, Ghana’s 2022 budget statement and economic policy has facilities that could be harnessed for such welfare-enhancing initiatives.

Furthermore, we suggest that development policies and practices aimed at rural transformation need not focus exclusively on agriculture, but should also pay critical attention to addressing entry barriers to rural off-farm employment such lack of credit, poor road infrastructure and entrepreneurship training. This will be essential for improving rural livelihood outcomes – particularly given the evidence that farming does not provide full employment even among the highly commercialised farm households.


Photo credit: Louis Hodey

Diversification and food security in crop-livestock farming systems of Singida Region, Tanzania

Written by: Ntengua Mdoe, Gilead Mlay, Aida Isinika and Gideon Boniface

Diversification is a key strategy for coping with risks associated with climate change and variability among households in Africa’s semi-arid areas. The extent of diversification varies across households, but the crop and livestock enterprises undertaken comprise of at least one crop and one livestock species. As found in a recent APRA study, the nature of crop-livestock diversification in the farming systems of the semi-arid Singida Region, central Tanzania, has varying impacts for farmer food security. The research saught to answer the following policy-relevant questions: (i) How important is diversification in the crop-livestock farming systems of the Singida Region? (ii) What are the prominent crops and livestock species diversified by households in these farming systems? (ii) What is the degree of risk associated with different crop-livestock portfolios? (iii) How does crop-livestock diversification affect food security?


Importance of diversification

Evidence from the APRA findings show that diversification is widely practiced in Singida Region. Ninety-two per cent of 600 sample households studied were found to diversify two or more crops with at least one livestock species. Only 8 per cent diversified one crop with at least one livestock species. The five top ranking crop-livestock portfolios taken up by households are: (i) Maize, sorghum, sunflower, cattle, goats and chickens; (ii) Maize, common beans, cattle, goats and chickens; (iii) Maize, sunflower, cattle, goats and chickens; (iv) Maize, sorghum, cattle, goats and chickens and (v) Sorghum, sunflower, cattle, goats, sheep and chickens.

Prominent crops of the portfolios (in terms of percentage of sample households practicing them) were maize, sorghum and sunflower. The inclusion of maize in four of the portfolios is of note because it is drought prone. This is likely because maize is a staple food crop preferred by most households and thus, farmers continue to grow it despite the risk of not harvesting anything in the instance of low rains. Sorghum and sunflower are drought-tolerant crops; their prominence in the top-ranking portfolios may be strategic to reduce the risks associated with climate change and variability.

The prominent livestock species in the five top-ranking crop-livestock portfolios were cattle, goats and chickens. The prominence of cattle, which are highly vulnerable when grazing grounds dry up during prolonged droughts, is due to the fact that cattle are used as a store of wealth and considered more prestigious than goats, sheep and chickens. Chickens and goats were kept largely as a farmer survival strategy – in case of drought and the impacts on cattle. Unlike cattle, chickens and goats are relatively less affected due to their ability (chickens) to scavenge and (goats) to browse on shrubs when there is no grass.

Risk associated with crop-livestock portfolios

The coefficient of variation (CV) measure was used as an indicator of the degree of income risk associated with different crop-livestock portfolios. The crop-livestock portfolio comprising maize, sorghum, sunflower, cattle, goats, sheep and chickens was associated with the lowest risk (i.e., lowest CV), while the portfolio comprising maize, common beans, cattle, goats and chickens was associated with the highest degree of risk (i.e., highest CV). Apparently, the crop-livestock portfolio associated with the lowest risk includes maize and cattle, which are sensitive to climatic shocks, especially droughts. However, the risk associated with maize and cattle is downplayed by the inclusion of sorghum, sunflower, goats and chickens, which are drought-tolerant.

Effects on household food security

Households with higher levels of food security were associated with higher levels of crop-livestock diversification, suggesting a positive correlation between the two. This may largely be due to dietary diversity from the crop and livestock species in diverse portfolios. Where household food access depends largely on own production, crop-livestock diversification provides households with the products they cannot afford due to high market prices.

Conclusion and policy implications

The APRA study findings suggest that more efforts are needed to promote sorghum and other drought-tolerant and early-maturing crops over maize, which is drought-prone, in semi-arid areas. This should go hand-in-hand with efforts in crop breeding and improvement programmes to develop drought-tolerant maize varieties that meet consumer preferences. Goats and chickens that can thrive under critical drought conditions should also be promoted. The prominence of cattle, which are less resilient to drought and extreme heat conditions, calls for interventions to reduce risk in cattle production. Such interventions could include water harvesting and storage, as well as climate-smart cattle breeding.


Photo credit: CIAT/Georgina Smith

Agricultural commercialisation and rural employment

Written by: Fred Dzanku

The seasonal nature of agricultural production under rainfed conditions in most parts of rural Ghana, as in other sub-Saharan countries, makes employment in small-scale agriculture alone inadequate for improving the wellbeing of most rural households. Boosting commercial agriculture could be the key to generating employment – not only within agriculture but also in the non-agricultural sector due to linkages between the farm and non-farm economy. Within this context, this blog reflects on the findings of APRA Working Paper 92, and addresses the following questions: What is the association between agricultural commercialisation and rural employment? What are the returns to agricultural employment in a high agriculture commercialisation zone, and how does it compare with non-agricultural employment? Are farm and non-farm employment counterparts or competitors in a high agriculture commercialisation zone?


Our study looked at commercial agricultural households in south-western Ghana between 2017 and 2019 using panel surveys and qualitative interviews. A key finding from this research was that, in spite of inefficient food markets – whereby high temporal and spatial transaction costs lead to high food price volatility and negative impacts on household welfare – farmers in the oil-palm belt of south-western Ghana are not afraid to risk dedicating most of their land and farm labour to the production of non-food items, such as oil palm and cocoa. For instance, our study found that, on average, 76% of farmer’s land and over 80% of household members were involved in the  commercial agricultural enterprise – often the production of such non-food items, which have to be traded in order to procure food.           

Under-employment in agriculture

Undoubtedly, increasing agricultural commercialisation implies increased market participation; thus, resulting in higher demand for production factors, including labour. Yet, despite households’ high orientation towards commercial agriculture, farming alone does not provide full employment for most working-age household members. Our findings show that farmers only worked about 61 days per year on the farm, on average, indicating the presence of underemployment if agriculture were the only source of rural employment. This suggests that non-farm activities are important for generating employment among rural workers. Additionally, we find that even among highly-commercialised farm households, non-crop income constitutes more than half of total household income, with off-farm accounting for the bulk of non-crop income. More so, rural off-farm employment accounts for the bulk of the observed differences in household incomes among households.

Returns to agricultural and non-agricultural employment

Returns to farm labour were about US$2,000 per worker, and increased by 12% between 2017 and 2019. While these average returns equated to well above the yearly international poverty line of around US$694, one-third of farm workers achieved returns below the international poverty line, showing high levels of inequality in the distribution of returns. What about returns to non-farm employment? It is important to recognise that 45% of households in our study did not earn any income from the supply of labour to rural non-farm employment activities, but rural off-farm employment accounted for 28% of household income. That said, returns to rural non-farm employment – even in the high agricultural commercialisation zone – were nearly 1.5 times the returns to on-farm work.

Farm and non-farm employment: Counterparts or competitors?

Farmers in rural Ghana rarely have access to any agricultural credit, particularly formal credit. They have to finance their farm production activities using income from crop sales and/or off-farm income. In general, however, households that have high levels of crop commercialisation tend to rely less on rural off-farm employment, suggesting that the two activities generally compete. Rural off-farm employment was also found to be more important for households at lower levels of commercialisation than for those at higher levels of the commercialisation distribution.

Reflections for policymakers and practitioners

Our findings highlight certain relationships between agricultural commercialisation and rural unemployment in southwestern Ghana, and indicate key recommendations for policy and development practice. First, rather than exclusively focusing on handouts to farmers, such as purchase input subsidies, we propose that increasing the development of more inclusive infrastructural improvements in rural transport and oil palm processing would bolster smallholder participation in rewarding oil palm commercialisation channels, and potentially yield better household welfare outcomes. Encouragingly, Ghana’s 2022 budget statement and economic policy has facilities that could be harnessed for such welfare-enhancing initiatives.

Furthermore, we suggest that development policies and practices aimed at rural transformation need not focus exclusively on agriculture, but should also pay critical attention to addressing entry barriers to rural off-farm employment such lack of credit, poor road infrastructure and entrepreneurship training. This will be essential for improving rural livelihood outcomes – particularly given the evidence that farming does not provide full employment even among the highly commercialised farm households.

APRA Working Paper 93: Changing Farm Structure and Agricultural Commercialisation: Implications for Livelihood Improvements Among Small-Scale Farmers in Nigeria

Written by: Milu Muyanga, Adebayo B. Aromolaran, Thomas S. Jayne, Saweda Liverpool-Tasie, Titus Awokuse, Adesoji Adelaja, Elijah Obayelu, Fadlullah O. Issa, and Yanjanani Lifeyo

Research in several African countries shows the rapid rise of a medium-scale farming (MSF) sector. While national development policy strategies within the region officially regard the smallholder farming sector as an important (if not the main) vehicle for achieving agricultural growth, food security, and poverty reduction objectives, the meteoric rise of emergent farmers warrants their inclusion in efforts to understand the changing nature of farm structure and food value chains in Africa. The main objective of this working paper is to examine MSF as a potential pathway towards increased agricultural commercialisation.

APRA Working Paper 92: Livelihood Outcomes of Agricultural Commercialisation, Women’s Empowerment and Rural Employment

Written by: Fred Mawunyo Dzanku and Louis Sitsofe Hodey

Across Ghana, mixed-crop-livestock enterprises dominate the farming systems with most farmers producing both food staples and non-food cash crops. However, this paper focuses mainly on oil palm-producing farmers because oil palm is Ghana’s second most important industrial crop (aside from cocoa). However, it has a more extensive local value chain that allows for artisanal processing and thus, has huge potential for rural employment generation and poverty reduction. Oil palm is also one of the priority crops under Ghana’s Food and Agriculture Sector Development Policy. This paper reviews the livelihood outcomes with regards to agricultural commercialisation and how this particularly relates to women’s empowerment and rural employment in the oil palm sector in Ghana.

Medium-scale farming as a policy tool for agricultural commercialisation and small-scale farm transformation in Nigeria

Written by: Milu Muyanga

Land ownership patterns are changing in sub-Saharan Africa. In Ghana, Kenya and Zambia, medium-scale farms (MSFs), of between 5 and 100ha now account for more land than large-scale investors. Most African countries’ national agricultural investment plans and policy strategies officially view smallholder farming as the primary means of achieving agricultural growth, food security and poverty-reduction goals. However, many governments have adopted land and financial policies that implicitly encourage the rise of MSFs. APRA Policy Brief 32 investigates various questions around the formation, productivity and local impacts of MSFs in Nigeria; the main findings are summarised here.


The APRA Nigeria team have been conducting a series of studies in Kaduna and Ogun states to understand how MSFs affect the productivity and commercialisation potential of small-scale farms (SSFs). Specifically, in their recent policy brief examining medium-scale farming as a policy tool for agricultural commercialisation and SSF transformation in Nigeria, the team investigated: the characteristics of MSFs and the processes that produce them; the relative importance of MSFs in the agricultural commercialisation process; the relationship between farm scale and productivity; and whether MSFs influence the behaviour and welfare of the millions of SSF households around them.

The study has released a policy brief that summarises the four main findings as follows: (1) roughly half of the randomly selected medium-scale farmers started out as small-scale farmers who were able to expand and step up to medium-scale operation; a roughly equal number of medium-scale farmers were primarily engaged in off-farm employment before investing in land and stepping in to medium-scale farming. (2) There are important differences in farm productivity for the stepping up and stepping in MSF groups. (3) The relationship between farm size and productivity in the Kaduna and Ogun states of Nigeria is U-shaped, with the highest productivity measures recorded for farms under 3ha and those over 25ha, especially among those who stepped up from SSFs. (4) In terms of positive spillovers, MSF investment appears to inject important expertise into underperforming SSF such as provision of extension services and improved access to improved inputs and markets, which increase the productivity of SSFs. MSF are also providing farm employment opportunities to the nearby small-scale farm households as farm labourers.

The study also reveals that SSF households account for most of Nigeria’s rural poor and must be the target of poverty-reduction programmes. The role of MSFs in promoting welfare indicators of small-scale farmers has been under-appreciated. The findings further suggest that a dual-pronged strategy that maximises the spillover benefits from interactions between SSFs and MSFs, for all farmers, may improve agricultural productivity and commercialisation. Consequently, supporting the growth of MSFs could provide an important pathway to increased agricultural commercialisation, leading to significant positive welfare outcomes for most SSFs.

APRA Working Paper 91: Effects of Commercialisation on Seaonsal Hunger: Evidence from Smallholder Resettlement Areas, Mazowe Distrct, Zimbabwe

Written by: Chrispen Sukume, Godfrey Mahofa and Vine Mutyasira


Agricultural transformation towards intensive commercial production is a key facet of current development strategies pursued by African governments, aimed at improving welfare outcomes of farm households. However, in Zimbabwe, there is concern that increased commercialisation, especially through tobacco production, may have resulted in increased food and nutrition insecurity in the smallholder farming sector. Using data from two rounds of surveys conducted in 2018 and 2020 of smallholder farmers, this study examined the impacts of cash crop and food-based commercialisation pathways on seasonal food insecurity in rural households of Mazowe district.

Journal Article: Livestock, Crop Commercialization and Poverty Reduction in Crop-Livestock Farming Systems in Singida Region, Tanzania

Written by: Ntengua Mdoe, Glead Mlay, Aida Isinika, Gideon Boniface and Christopher Magomba

Livestock is an important component of crop-livestock farming systems in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). This paper examined the effect of livestock on crop commercialization and poverty reduction among smallholder farmers in crop-livestock farming systems in Singida Region, Tanzania. It was hypothesized that livestock enhances crop commercialization and reduce poverty among smallholder farmers in the Region. Data for the analysis were extracted from the Agricultural Policy Research for Africa (APRA) data set of 600 households selected randomly from random samples of eight and seven villages in Iramba and Mkalama districts respectively. Descriptive
statistics were used to compare ownership of livestock, use of ox-plough and livestock manure, crop productivity, crop commercialization and poverty levels across different categories of farmers. Econometric analyses were used to determine if livestock had a significant effect on crop commercialization and poverty levels, controlling for other variables that might have an effect. The results of descriptive analyses show differences in ownership of livestock, use of ox-plough and livestock manure, crop productivity, crop commercialization and poverty levels across different categories of farmers while the results of econometric analysis show that livestock enhanced crop commercialization. Apart from livestock, a range of other factors have worked together with livestock to drive the crop commercialization process. Regarding the impact of commercialization, the findings show that farmers have gained higher productivity (yield), signifying the potential of crop commercialization to reduce poverty. In general, evidence from the results show decline in poverty as crop commercialization increases from zero to medium level. Although crop commercialization has positively impacted on crop productivity (yields) and poverty, the results show existence of socio-economic disparities. Male-headed households (MHH) and households headed by medium-scale farmers (MSF), young farmers and livestock keepers were less poor than their counterpart femaleheaded households (FHH) and households headed by small-scale farmers (SSFs), older farmers and non-livestock keepers. These social differences are consequences of differences in the use of ox-plough, livestock manure and other productivity enhancing inputs. Exploiting the synergy between crop and livestock in crop-livestock farming systems needs to be recognized and exploited in efforts geared towards enhancing crop commercialization and reducing poverty among smallholder farmers in crop-livestock farming systems in Tanzania and elsewhere in SSA.

Journal Article: Choice of Tillage Technologies and Impact on Paddy Yield and Food Security in Kilombero Valley, Tanzania

Written by: Glead Mlay, Ntengua Mdoe, Aida Isinika, Gideon Boniface and Christopher Magomba

This paper analyses choice of alternative tillage technology options and their impact on paddy yield and food security in Kilombero valley of Morogoro Region, Tanzania. The results show that the choice of any tillage technology option combining hand hoe with animal traction and/or tractor is influenced by characteristics of household head (sex, age and education), access to extension, dependency ratio, land size and livestock assets. As hypothesized the three improved tillage technology options above the hand hoe enhance paddy yield and improve household food security. Factors other than tillage technology options that influence paddy yield and food security are characteristics of household head(sex, age and education), access to extension, use of fertilizer and herbicides, dependency ratio, farm size and livestock assets. The study recommends promotion of tillage technology options involving use of animal traction and yield enhancing inputs.

ALRE Working Paper 4: COVID-19: APRA’s Contribution to Understanding the Effects in Rural Africa

Written by: Martin Whiteside

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020 initiated a remarkable pivot within APRA in which a new COVID focussed research programme was rapidly designed, approved and launched. The first APRA COVID-19 blogs appeared in April 2020, a comprehensive synthesis of existing learning on epidemics was published in May, and the first of three rounds of an eight-country, 800-farmer multi-phase survey, was completed in July. Over a period of two years 33 publications, 77 blogs, extensive social media, numerous in-country seminars and one international e-Dialogue were used to communicate the findings. The publications were downloaded over 10,000 times and the blogs over 16,000 times with coverage in national newspapers in most of the focus countries. This Working Paper explores these efforts to identify their impact and any lessons to be learned for improvement in future programmes.

ALRE Working Paper 3: African Media Coverage: APRA’s Contribution to Understanding of Agricultural Change

Written by: Martin Whiteside

The Agricultural Policy Research in Africa (APRA) programme made significant efforts to engage with the local/national media as a way of disseminating research findings and consequent policy implications. This was assisted by early planning as part of the Participatory Impact Pathways Analysis process and excellent support from the Information, Communication and Engagement team throughout the programme. Overall, this engagement was very successful with significant coverage of APRA’s research activities and some headline results across countries. This Working Paper reflects on APRA’s engagement with the media, its effectiveness and lessons learnt from media engagement over the programme’s duration.

What are the gender-focused challenges within agriculture and commercialisation, and how can we approach tackling these?

Written by: Fred Dzanku

Agriculture remains the dominant employment activity among most households in Ghana, which currently engages 61% of the economically active population aged 15 years and above. However, returns to agrarian livelihood remain lower than gains from other sectors of the economy. APRA Working Paper 90 explores this reality, and the differential outcomes that emerge as a result of gender disparities in the country as well as potential pathways to addressing them.


Commercialisation and crop choice have been identified as correlating with poverty reduction in Ghana. In a nationally representative sample[1], it was seen that poverty reduction is faster among farmers who engage in the production of export crops (cocoa, oil palm, rubber, and cashew) than among food crop producers. As such, agricultural commercialisation is generally expected to enhance the farmers’ income, including smallholders – in turn leading to better livelihood outcomes. However, some academics and development practitioners worry that the overconcentration of resources on non-food cash crop production could hurt welfare (particularly with regards to food security).

This blog addresses two important questions. Firstly, which pathway to agricultural commercialisation (specialisation versus diversification) is most effective in empowering women and improving their nutrition security? And, secondly, how important are off-farm employment activities (relative to agricultural commercialisation) for poverty reduction in highly commercialised rural areas – and what is the influence of gender in these? To answer these policy-relevant questions, we drew information from an APRA study comprising panel data collected from farm households in 21 rural communities in the oil palm belt of south-western Ghana

Pathway to agriculture commercialisation

Households were found to be highly market-oriented: they dedicate most of their land to oil palm and cocoa production (i.e., 76% of cropland). This high degree of specialisation in the production of non-food cash crops contrasts sharply with the notion that African smallholders’ primary aim is to achieve food self-sufficiency. The highest levels of commercialisation are obtained by combining oil palm and cocoa rather than specialising in just one. However, only 19% of farm households combined the two crops successfully, and were able to do so because they have 65% more land than their counterparts who specialise in one of the two crops.

Commercialisation pathway from a gender perspective

Women were found to be left behind in the high-level commercialisation pathway; partly because more than half (51%) of those in the study were disempowered, so are less able to combine oil palm and cocoa production. However, women lack even less power when it comes to key commercialisation decisions – particularly regarding the disposal of revenues from commercial agriculture, even though they contribute almost the same level of labour to the households’ commercialisation enterprise.

Although the specialisation pathway to commercialisation at household level improved women’s nutritional status, there is a threshold beyond which further specialisation lowers diet quality – implying that the overconcentration of household resources on the production of non-food cash crops hurts women’s welfare. However, combining cash crops with food crops has a positive effect on both women’s empowerment and dietary diversity. The likelihood that women will be empowered is greater if they grow food crops, as they have more control over revenues generated from food crop production. This is because such crops are commonly produced on plots controlled by women. Autoconsumption of cassava (the foremost staple food crop) also frees up cash, which is then utilised to purchase other foodstuffs produced elsewhere; in turn leading to improvements in women’s nutrition.

In spite of high commercialisation rates and increasing average incomes from commercial agriculture, 45% of households sampled experienced seasonal food insecurity; and this is more prevalent among female-headed households (54%). This shows that farming alone cannot provide enough income to ensure food security among households, hence the need for enhancing off-farm income generating opportunities. Notwithstanding the high commercialisation rates, 35% of farm households’ income came from non-agricultural sources. Not only does non-farm income improve household food security, but it also greatly reduces the gender gap in food security because non-farm income is even more important for women.

Policy implications relating to the findings

Given the high level of commercial orientation among farm households, the study suggests a need for massive investment in rural infrastructure, especially roads connecting rural areas to towns and cities, to increase the gains from market participation.

Specific policies targeted at empowering women should address rural, non-farm entry constraints, which is achievable by deliberately channelling existing resources towards relaxing entry barriers to remunerative off-farm opportunities.

In addition, educational campaigns are required in non-food cash crop-concentrated rural areas. These will highlight the importance of dedicating a portion of land to the production of food crops in the short- to medium-term, to enable markets to fully develop and allow specialisation pathways to commercialisation that will not negatively impact food security, particularly among women.


[1] Ghana Statistical Service. (2018). Ghana Living Standards Survey Round 7 (GLSS 7): poverty profile in Ghana (2005-2017). Ghana Statistical Service. Accra, Ghana. Available at  http://www.statsghana.gov.gh/publications.html (10th November 2018)


Photo credit: Shutterstock

The Effects of COVID-19 on Food Equity and Nutrition Security in sub-Saharan Africa: Lessons from a Multi-Phase Assessment

Written by: Leah Salm, Nick Nisbett and Alexandra Lulache

The COVID-19 pandemic in sub-Saharan Africa has elicited reactions that are also seen worldwide: widespread and indefinite health effects, and deep reverberations on almost all parts of daily life, from livelihoods, to freedom of movement and the availability of foods and services. As was seen in previous health crises such as that of HIV or Ebola, the effects of the pandemic are mediated by pre-existing power structures, vulnerabilities, and systems of support, which lead to differentiated outcomes for people and communities, often to the detriment of the poorest groups. This study examines the impact of COVID-19 on commercialising farmers across sub-Saharan Africa, with a deeper focus on Nigeria and Malawi, from a food equity perspective.

A Multi-Phase Assessment of the Effects of COVID-19 on Food Systems and Rural Livelihoods in Sub-Saharan Africa – Synthesis Report 3

Written by: Amrita Saha, Marco Carreras and John Thompson

Since it began in early 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic led to considerable concerns about the viability of local food systems and rural livelihoods across sub-Saharan Africa. This paper presents the results of a three-round assessment of the effects of COVID-19 on the farming, labour and marketing practices, food and nutrition security, and well-being of over 800 male- and female-headed rural households in eight countries – Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. In this paper, we argue that when we closely examine the lived experiences of people in different country contexts, results suggest that the immediate restrictions and strict control measures imposed by governments at the start of the pandemic on social and commercial activities acted as a major shock to the well-being of many rural households and communities. Furthermore, while some households and communities were able to find ways to cope or adapt to the COVID-19-related disruptions, for others the pandemic coincided with a number of other shocks and stresses (extreme weather events, locust infestations, conflict and insecurity, or a combination of these), exacerbating some of the observed risks.

APRA ICE Insight 5: The Power of Blogs to Share Research and Communicate Policy Lessons

Written by: Alice Mutimer, Susanna Cartmell, Sophie Reeve and Olivia Frost

Over the course of the Agricultural Policy Research in Africa (APRA) Programme (2016-22), researchers produced over 150 publications, including Working Papers, Briefs, COVID-19 Papers, Journal Articles and several books. The intended audience of these publications varied, from the academic community to national and regional policymakers and other stakeholders; but their value is multiplied when they engage a broader audience. A key approach taken by APRA’s Information, Communication and Engagement team to further the reach of these publications was to support the researchers in publishing weekly blogs. Ranging in length from 700 to 1,000 words, these blogs condensed the key insights and messages from longer, more technical publications, particularly highlighting valuable findings and policy takeaways, into a shorter, more accessible and relevant format. With over 200 blogs published since 2018, these outputs have proved highly valuable in promoting APRA publications and events, receiving multiple viewings from a diverse audience and leading to significant subsequent downloads of the related research outputs. This report explores the use of blogs throughout the APRA programme to identify what went well and what could have been improved to expand their impact even further.

APRA ICE Insight 4: e-Dialogues Spark Debate on the Dynamics of Agricultural Commercialisation

Written by: Sophie Reeve, Susanna Cartmell, Alice Mutimer and Olivia Frost

In early 2022, the Agricultural Policy Research in Africa (APRA) Programme of the Future Agricultures Consortium (FAC), in partnership with the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network and Foresight4Food, held an e-Dialogue series: Towards an Equitable and Sustainable Transformation of Food Systems. This followed an earlier, highly successful series organised with the same partners in the second half of 2020 on What Future for Small-Scale Farming? The latest series included three online Zoom sessions led by APRA over January-March 2022 on topics including COVID-19 and its effects on local food systems and rural livelihoods, and transition pathways and strategies for supporting more equitable and resilient food systems in Africa. These virtual events were designed to replace an international conference that was part of APRA’s original end-of-programme plan, before the COVID-19 crisis prevented large, physical gatherings. The three e-Dialogues brought together APRA researchers and expert commentators from across sub-Saharan Africa, as well as a wider audience. The objective of these dialogues was to examine evidence and lessons from APRA’s six-year collaborative research programme (2016-22) analysing the dynamics of agricultural commercialisation processes, agrarian change and rural transformation in the region. This report looks at their impact, what worked well, and what could have been improved.

APRA ICE Insight 3: Communicating New Evidence Through APRA Working Papers and Briefs

Written by: Olivia Frost, Susanna Cartmell, Sophie Reeve and Alice Mutimer

Agricultural Policy Research in Africa (APRA) has been a six-year research programme of the Future Agricultures Consortium (FAC), aiming to identify the most effective pathways to agricultural commercialisation that empower women, reduce rural poverty and improve nutrition and security in sub-Saharan Africa. Through in-depth, interdisciplinary, comparative research across nine countries, APRA has generated high-quality evidence and policy-relevant insights on more inclusive pathways to agricultural commercialisation. To disseminate its research findings and policy messages, APRA had a multi-format strategy to produce a portfolio of mutually-reinforcing publications to inform a broad spectrum of actors. This report evaluates APRA’s publication outputs to understand what went well, and to identify what improvements could have been made.

APRA ICE Insight 2: Making the Most of the Media

Written by: Susanna Cartmell, Olivia Frost, Alice Mutimer and Sophie Reeve

To disseminate policy-relevant messages based on APRA research at country and regional levels, the Information and Communication and Engagement (ICE) team encouraged country teams to build relationships with the media from early on in the programme. This is not something with which APRA researchers had much experience and, subsequently, the approach was taken up by only a few teams. Nevertheless, with support from the ICE team, those teams that pursued active engagement with the media proved very successful. This report reflects on the APRA programme’s engagements with the media to identify what went well and key lessons on what could have be improved.

APRA ICE Insight 1: Investing in Social Media Pays Big Dividends

Written by: Sophie Reeve, Alice Mutimer, Susanna Cartmell and Olivia Frost

Over the past six years, the use of social media, including Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp, has been a vital part of APRA’s Communications Strategy in raising awareness of the programme’s activities and outputs. Since 2016, APRA’s social media profile has been embedded within the Future Agricultures Consortium’s (FAC) well-established online channels – including Facebook and Twitter – with the view to increase FAC’s followings and enhance APRA’s visibility. The Impact, Communication and Engagement team has been responsible for developing APRA’s Digital Strategy and tracking the impact of social media activities, including sharing APRA’s publications and news on events, and promoting APRA’s key research messages. This report explores this impact, what went well, and what could be improved as future programmes plan their own social media efforts.

APRA Working Paper 90: Agricultural Commercialisation Pathways and Gendered Livelihood Outcomes in Rural South-Western Ghana

Written by: Fred Mawunyo Dzanku

It is widely assumed that agricultural commercialisation leads to increased incomes and therefore better livelihood outcomes for farmers, including smallholders. But are the gains from commercial agriculture equitably distributed? Are there pathways to agricultural commercialisation that are more effective than others in empowering women and improving their nutrition security? Do non-crop livelihood options matter for rural households in vibrant crop commercialisation zones, and what is the influence of gender in this scenario? In this paper, household panel data from 1,330 farm households in south-western Ghana is used to address these salient questions.

APRA Working Paper 89: Impact of Commercialisation Pathways on Income and Asset Accumulation: Evidence from Smallholder Farming in Zimbabwe

Written by: Godfrey Mahofa, Vine Mutyasira and Chrispen Sukume

Smallholder agricultural commercialisation has been seen as an important pathway out of rural poverty in developing countries. However, little empirical evidence is available in sub-Saharan Africa that examines the relationship between commercialisation pathways taken by farmers and welfare outcomes, such as farm income and asset accumulation. This paper fills this gap by taking advantage of data from two rounds of surveys conducted in 2018 and 2020 of smallholder farmers in Zimbabwe.

APRA Working Paper 88: Agricultural Commercialisation, Gender Relations and Women’s Empowerment in Smallholder Farm Households: Evidence from Zimbabwe

Written by: Godfrey Mahofa, Chrispen Sukume and Vine Mutyasira

Agricultural commercialisation has been identified as an important part of the structural transformation process, as the economy grows from subsistence to highly commercialised entities that rely on the market for both inputs and for the sale of crops. However, this process is likely to leave some sections of society behind, particularly women. Little empirical evidence is available in sub-Saharan Africa that examines the relationship between commercialisation and women’s empowerment. This paper fills this gap and uses data from two rounds of surveys of smallholder farmers conducted in Zimbabwe to show that agricultural commercialisation reduces women’s empowerment, while crop diversification improves women’s empowerment.