Agricultural commercialisation: who wins and who loses?

Models of commercialisation

The LACA project explores the implications of three models of commercialisation in three case study sites in each country. The first year of the project has involved qualitative research in all 9 study sites. While these models have long been used in African agriculture and much is known about them, as Rebecca Smalley’s recent blog explains, the recent spate of large-scale land deals for commercial farming have underscored the urgency of provide evidence on their different impacts on rural livelihoods, gender relations, employment, and agrarian change.

LACA project teamPhoto: the LACA project team meet at the Institute of African Studies, University of Ghana: Ian Scoones, Dzodzi Tsikata, Paul Goldsmith, Adano Roba, Vera Rocca, Dzifa Torvike, Joseph Teye, Ruth Hall, Abdirizak Nunow (back row); Emmanuel Sulle, Cyriaque Hakizimana, Joseph Yaro, Chrispin Matenga, Edward (front row)

The project aims to answer these and other questions by focusing on three different models of agricultural commercialisation:

  • large plantations and estates based on wage labour and vertically integrated into global markets;
  • areas dominated by medium-scale commercial farmers;
  • and outgrower schemes where small-scale farmers sell on contract to commercial processors.

This week’s meeting saw teams reporting on their qualitative research conducted in the first year of research, and also included a field trip  to visit small- to medium-scale commercial mango farmers selling to Blue Skies, a processing and export company selling pre-packed fresh cut fruit to upmarket supermarkets in the European Union.

The project is grounded in several contextual studies.

A history paper, in draft form, draws on analysis of the evolution of commercial agriculture in Ghana, Kenya and Zambia, exploring how these unfolded and were contested through the colonial period; the early post-colonial period of ‘developmentalism’; the liberalisation era from the 1980s; and the transformation era from the early 2000s, combining both reform and growing competition. The paper asks: under what political conditions did these three models emerge, re-emerge or persist? What are their historical antecedents? In what ways do their recent (re-)emergences reflect continuity or transformation?

A review of international development literature critically explores how narratives of scarcity are framing debates within Africa and globally concerning the need for, and character of, agricultural commercialisation. This paper, based on a review of 134 key policy documents, shows how competing framings of scarcity – notions of absolute scarcity, relative scarcity and political scarcity – are being fought over, in debates about food security, population growth, and the role of agricultural intensification in Africa as a response.

LACA project meetingPhoto: Dzodzi Tsikata (Institute for Social, Statistical and Economic Research, University of Ghana) and Chrispin Matenga (Development Studies, University of Zambia) during discussion of the LACA project

Emerging insights

Several important insights emerged at this stage of the research.

Firstly, our typology of models of agricultural commercialisation appears to be vindicated.

In each country, the models resonated with distinct features of commercial farming. Processes of agrarian change are clearly underway: the size distribution of landholdings changes quite rapidly at some of our study sites, farmers become wage workers, and many households straddle different livelihoods.

At the same time, important contextual differences emerged. For example, the term ‘commercial farmer’ means different things across our cases, in terms of wealth, scale of operation, the degree of employment, mechanization, and so on.

Secondly, local people and elite farmers are buying and leasing land – not just foreign ‘land grabbers’.

Under both customary and freehold tenure regimes, elite farmers and local people are buying or leasing land and becoming significant actors in agriculture. This suggests a need to nuance the land grab debate, and to pay attention to who are the local investors and accumulators, and what market conditions are they responding to.

Thirdly, while there are clear patterns of capital accumulation within agriculture, it is happening in different ways and with different implications.

For instance, in the case of the commercial mango farmers at Somanya outside Accra, accumulation and commercialisation visible within the farming landscape was largely due to the investment of incomes from urban business and wage incomes (for example, retired civil servants).

This means that any study of commercialisation needs to be cautious about attribution. Policymakers may well be missing the degree to which ‘commercialisation’ is the transfer of capital from one sector to another, rather than endogenous development. So we need to look at the entry points for multipliers, a key focus for our next stage of exploring the impacts of commercialisation on local economies.

Plans: life histories, quantitative surveys, sampling

laca3Photo: Cyriaque Hakizimana (PLAAS) discusses a sampling strategy for a household survey, while Emmanuel Sulle (PLAAS) takes notes.

Plans for the project include follow-up qualitative research, including life histories, as well as a quantitative research phase. The project team discussed a research instrument for the second year of the project, which will involve a quantitative household survey to determine impacts on local people, including households now getting jobs and those becoming commercial outgrowers. The stratified random sample will be administered in all nine study sites, with findings becoming available in late 2014.

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