Agrarian change and rural transformation in sub-Saharan Africa: Emerging challenges and regional realities

On 20 January 2022, an e-dialogue was convened to analyse the dynamics of agricultural commercialisation and agrarian change across East, West and Southern Africa. The programme began with participants engaging in three parallel regional presentations and discussions, and culminated in a continental-level panel involving expert commentators and audience questions.

Social differentiation and livelihood trajectories

The Southern Africa session began with four presentations, highlighting key regional concerns. Mirriam Matita, APRA Malawi Country Lead and Economics PhD Student at the University of Malawi, commenced proceedings by analysing lessons learned regarding groundnut commercialisation and livelihood trajectories in Malawi, and was followed by Loveness Msofi, Lecturer at Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources, who spoke on gender and social dynamics in commercialisation in Malawi. Toendepi Shonhe, Agricultural Political Economist at the University of South Africa, then looked at agricultural commercialisation, changing labour regimes and rural transformation in Zimbabwe, before Chrispen Sukume, APRA Zimbabwe Country Lead and Co-Administrator at Zimbabwe’s Livestock and Meat Advisory Council, examined the impact of smallholder tobacco commercialisation on food security in the region.

Following these insights, expert commentator Kezia Batisai, Associate Professor at the University of Johannesburg, highlighted key shifts required to support agricultural transformation in the region. These include addressing the informality of the sector’s development due to poor implementation of policy, ensuring any change to agricultural commercialisation is inclusive, sustainable and permanent, and directing resources to those who have historically been marginalised because of a lack of political power and connections. Batisai also noted the need for gendered responses, as women landowners are currently grappling with gendered intergenerational land transfer biased towards male inherence, often pushing women to the margins. During the discussion, she also emphasised the need to address patriarchal structures and cultural practices to reduce gender inequality and amplify the voices of women.

Patience Mutopo, Founding Chair and Professor of the Centre for Development Studies at the Chinhoyi University of Technology, said the critical question was that of labour. She presented several myths that exist in Zimbabwe, including that there is a shortage of farm labour (when, in reality, unemployment is very high in many African countries), and that people working on farms solely do just that – when, in fact, most people are engaged in a number of diversified, income-generating activities. During the general discussion Matita also argued for the need to tailor solutions to different kinds of farmers; for example, smallholders versus those with large-scale operations.

To finish, Ian Scoones, Co-Director of the ESRC STEPS Centre of the Institute of Development Studies, emphasised the importance of having access to land, and how this is linked to opportunities for commercialisation, gender equality, labour, and more. He highlighted that commercialisation is a complex process with no single trajectory, and that there is a need for wider and more agile policies to promote and enable commercialisations.

Dynamics of rice and sunflower commercialisation

The East Africa session focused on agricultural concerns in Ethiopia and Tanzania. APRA Ethiopia Country Lead and Country Representative of Stichting Wageningen Research Ethiopia of the Wageningen University in the Netherlands, Dawit Alemu, launched proceedings by using examples from the Fogera Plain to review the dynamics of rice commercialisation and agrarian change in Ethiopia. Next, Gideon Boniface, an APRA researcher in Tanzania, reviewed how small-scale processors support agricultural commercialisation among smallholder rice farmers in the region, before Aida Isinika, APRA Tanzania Country Lead and Professor at the Sokoine University of Agriculture, spoke on the connections between rice commercialisation, livelihood outcomes and women’s empowerment in Tanzania. Finally, Ntengua Mdoe, also a Professor at the Sokoine University of Agriculture, explored correlations among sunflower commercialisation and livelihood diversification and poverty reduction in Tanzania’s Singida Region.

To start wider discussion on these topics, Dr. Mary Mutembei, Head of the Rice Promotion Program at the Kenyan Ministry of Agriculture, emphasised the common situations and solutions across the region, saying, “There is a lot we can learn from each other.” On the solutions side, she noted that the creation of rural-urban markets can generate jobs in rural areas through the commercialisation of value chains and help reduce rural-to-urban migration. She also called on development partners and the private sector to come together to work towards the same goals, particularly in addressing challenges. One example given is how mechanisation and technology promote youth in agriculture, but unfortunately at the expense of women. She said: “We need to find ways to increase equity and inclusivity, even as we specialise and modernise.”

Alemu added that there is an untapped need for machinery suppliers and servicers, and that this is an important opportunity to create even more jobs as service providers, while also supporting farmers. Isinika added that commercialisation also offers job creation opportunities and can add value as processors become leaders in the value chains.

Expert commentator Isaac Minde, Professor of Agricultural Economics and Associate Director of the Alliance for African Partnership at Michigan State University, added that it is important to include other lenses, for example political economy analysis, to better understand key issues, such as how politics affects economic outcomes of value chains. Mutembei added that food and nutrition security is another important lens, and there is a need to mainstream nutritional issues as sectors commercialise, as well as the need to be cognisant of how climate change will affect the value chain.

Inclusivity and smallholder transformation

Discussion from the West Africa region addressed cocoa- and agricultural-related issues in Ghana and Nigeria. This first saw Adebayo Aromolaran, APRA’s Nigeria Country Lead and Professor at Ajasin University, use evidence from Nigeria to explore whether medium-scale farms are a driving force behind agricultural transformation in Africa. Next, Fred Dzanku, APRA’s Ghana Country Lead and a Research Fellow at the Institute of Statistical Social and Economic Research, discussed approaches that can be taken in Ghana to achieve inclusive oil palm commercialisation. Kojo Amanor, a Professor at the University of Ghana, then highlighted long-term patterns of change within the Ghanaian cocoa sector, before Adeola Olajide, an Agricultural Economist, summarised the issues and prospects surrounding cocoa commercialisation in Nigeria.

Launching the expert review discussion was Charles Abugre, Executive Director of the International Development Economics Associates, who highlighted that a food systems approach suggests a broader focus on: food system activities beyond production, such as trade, transport and value addition; food systems outcomes beyond poverty reduction and food access, such as nutrition employment, inequalities; as well as food systems drivers such the impacts of population, changes in consumption patterns and climate change. He also noted that questions remain with regards to the future of cocoa production given global price trends, climate change and their income distribution effects at the local level.

Soji Adelaja, Distinguished Professor in Land Policy at Michigan State University, emphasised the importance of APRA’s research in the region and the role it plays in supporting Africa’s agricultural future with regards to both commercialisation and economic transformation. For example, farmers who ‘step up’ into larger acreage farms are positively associated with productivity and size, and “as long as we can continue to push and encourage these farms, we can see the kinds of productivity increases that are consistent with economic transformation,” he said. However, he also noted that gender- and youth-related challenges remain in the sector, and to make farming truly inclusive, the government must take greater action in addressing these.

Continuing points discussed during his presentation, Aromolaran recommended that incentives be devised and offered by policymakers to encourage further interactions between medium- and small-scale farms.

Finally, Olajide stated that policies which support cocoa consumption and utilisation within Nigeria need to be implemented – as once consumption and demand for produce are created, this will translate to increased production and expansion.

Emerging Challenges and Opportunities for Inclusive Commercialisation: Insights from the Regional Sessions

Participants and speakers came together to share the key points from the regional sessions and draw conclusions on a continental scale. Many focused on the issue of gender, with Mutopo calling on the group to consider the ‘missing women’, and the need to engage them rather than consider them as victims. Janice Olawoye, Professor at the University of Ibadan, noted that when the incomes of women farmers rise, health and educational outcomes improve. Batisai added that women need to be put into policymaking positions at all levels so they can become agents of change.

West Africa expert commentator Abugre called for a systems approach which would also address land grabbing, the overuse of chemicals and other inputs, and a broader set of goals to be achieved by agriculture, such as human and planetary health. Adelaja added increasing populations, shrinking farm sizes, and climate shocks to the list, and said Africa needs to become and remain self-reliant in terms of food production despite these challenges.

Professor Minde, however, emphasised the need to be realistic in terms of goal setting, policymaking, and monitoring, calling for achievable goals, implementable programmes, and prioritisation of areas of investment. This sentiment of looking to the future and ensuring sustainable progress was echoed by Dr. Mary Mutembei, who emphasised the need to assess the impact and long-term benefits of transformational food systems on rural areas and disadvantaged groups.

Closing remarks came from Ken Giller, Professor of Plant Production Systems at Wageningen University. He highlighted several key action points, including the need to raise awareness of these issues among governments and policymakers and the necessity of finding solutions that are flexible and can be adapted to a wide diversity of contexts. He particularly highlighted the persistent challenge that the poorest in Africa’s supply chains are greatly left behind and that they need more than commercialisation; they need policies to reduce inequality.

The next e-dialogue in this series will be: COVID-19 and its Effects on Local Food Systems and Rural Livelihoods in sub-Saharan Africa on 9th February, 2020 at 13.00 GMT. Register here.