The high contribution of small-scale farmers to Africa’s agriculture is not in doubt. This group produces the lion’s share of Africa’s agricultural productivity, and also contributes significantly to the GDP of several countries. In spite of this, small scale agriculture is inadequately targeted in research interventions, especially in science and technology. This has given rise to a wrongful impression that smallholder agriculture is only about the preservation of ancient methodologies and systems, and does not need to be researched.
The future of smallholder systems is threatened if it cannot be strengthened through science and technology based research. Such research must however be explored, taking into account the key fundamentals of these systems and aim to improve overall productivity without sacrificing the core elements of their sustainability – such as their biodiversity and other elements of their system resilience. The research must also begin from a deep understanding of the smallholder circumstances and realities, and target the kind of interventions that are realistic at the smallholder scale of production. An integrated agricultural research for development approach needs to be used in which the voice of the farmer is heard in the identification of potential realistic outcomes for which S&T research is then targeted. The issue of financing however needs to be addressed as part of an integrated approach, as science and technology products could require initial capital outlay that may not be available to some farmers.
Science and technology research for small-scale farmers need to orient towards efficiency and wealth creation for smallholders. How can research help to strengthen the value of the commodities generated from smallholder systems in a sustainable manner, and how can these be linked to markets? There needs to be more emphasis on agronomic, breeding and biotechnology improvements on indigenous crops of use and importance to local people and markets. Research on integrated pest management, for instance, needs to explore the combination of indigenous knowledge with new science and technology opportunities. Such research should aim at increasing yields and the expression of traits of importance to local people and to markets. This should also include research on neglected and under-utilized species.
The role of science and technology cannot be separated from the issue of public-private partnership. The private sector needs to be supported to get involved in supporting science and technology research that improves smallholder systems and enhances the wealth creation potential of these systems. Perhaps new equity instrument should ne developed by funding agencies such as the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), and other development banks, to support private sector interests and investments in science and technology that is aimed at strengthening the productivity and wealth creation of smallholder farmers.