Jerome Gefu

Professor Paul Collier’s thesis incriminating poor countries for lack of progress in food production, especially in the wake of the worsening global food crisis (and economic meltdown?) as hinging on the preponderance of small farms raises more questions than proffering feasible and sustainable solutions.   One question is: for whom do large-scale commercial farmers in poorer countries produce?

The argument for big farms as a means of boosting food production does not provide answer for the food shortage experienced in Africa and other poor regions. This is because most (if not all) of the large-scale commercial farmers in these regions produce essentially for Western markets where they are able to recoup their investments faster than they would have if they had targeted their production for domestic markets, where agricultural produce pricing is very erratic and responsive to a variety of environmental, socio-economic and political  uncertainties. These capital rich investors who are often members of the political and economic elite are able to easily deploy resources. However, there are only a handful of such advantaged capital rich investors that are willing to invest in food production for the purpose of alleviating domestic food crisis. Even when large scale farming had been embarked upon in most African countries, monumental failure had repeatedly been bitterly encountered.

The bulk of African farmers are resource-limited residing in remote areas. It was the small farms that dot African communities that feed the various populations in the 1960’s and 1970’s. It is a fact that these countries, like Nigeria , produced in excess of home consumption needs. Indeed, Nigeria (in the years preceding the discovery and exploration of oil) was a net exporter of food and agricultural products, deriving the bulk of her national income from agriculture. Those were the days of groundnut pyramids, cotton, rubber, cocoa, oil palm, grain and vegetable exports. These products came from the numerous small farms even as limited as they were in “modern farming inputs.” What went wrong, one might ask. Several things were amiss including the strong drive to modernize agriculture by employing large-scale production strategies with little or no regard for the prevailing institutional, cultural, environmental, socio-economic and other agricultural production considerations.

The African farmer is vulnerable to the vagaries of weather and is ill-prepared (and, therefore, caught off guard) when disasters come knocking. There are limited facilities and expertise for early warning devices. Conversely, in times of good harvests, producers have great difficulty in marketing excess crop and dairy products. The resulting glut results in depressed farm gate price and often producers are compelled to sell at significant losses. Post-harvest technologies, especially for preserving perishable foods are still being developed, the post-harvest losses are staggering. This could serve as disincentive to produce. Agricultural insurance scheme is almost non-existent for the smallholder. In times of losses, the farmer receives no compensation as every loss is borne by the farmer and his/her household.

Coming from the background of extreme poverty, the productivity of resource-limited farmers has declined steadily over the years. In many instances, land degradation has resulted in declining erosion and/or siltation, deforestation, overgrazing and desertification. The end result is food insecurity, which manifests in de-humanizing experiences (hunger, poverty, disease, etc). This scenario is aggravated by the increasing rate of land alienation to the economic and political elite who appropriate massive expanse of land for speculative purposes. This has resulted in the loss of land by majority of rural poor who are either forced to migrate out of the rural area and constitute themselves into a social menace in already congested cities, or become tenants to land merchants and land speculators. Many farmers and pastoralists who have lost access to land and/or livestock are increasingly converted to contract farmers for national multinational conglomerates.

Some past efforts geared at improving agricultural and food productivity have focused attention primarily on the injection of scientifically proven technologies that have led to substantial increase in crop and livestock production. Many of such introduced varieties have been found unsuitable because they are often not compatible with the agro-ecological conditions and farming systems of many African farming communities. Many of the introduced crop and livestock species required high-level inputs and management, which the poor farmer cannot provide. Where new varieties have been adopted and found to be well suited to the agro-climatic conditions, the resulting high yields have found limited market outlet. The resulting glut, coupled with the cheap imported foods from the West, African producers are faced with serious glut and depressed price and accompanying loss of income. Above scenario calls for a re-thinking and re-engineering of policies and programmes primarily targeted at the smallholder farmers of Africa .  Even where the scientific investments can lead to improved productivity, unless the poor have secure property rights the benefits are often expropriated by the powerful once the often poor quality of land has been restored meaning that the poor not only loose from the technical improvements but they loose on the value of the labour equity that has gone into improving productivity.

To get the African farmer out of the woods and be launched into prosperity, the aforementioned constraints must be meticulously addressed. For the region, the starting point for improved food production and eradicating extreme poverty and hunger is a complete overhauling of the institutional and policy environment. Reforms must be embarked upon by African leaders and peoples with every sincerity of purpose.

For us, the first step is to undertake a comprehensive land reform such that every rural producer shall be guaranteed secure access to crop and grazing land in pursuant of legitimate livelihoods. This calls for a re-thinking and re-engineering of land use and land tenure regulations and policies which would facilitate access to and use of land. Since most African communities access land through customary arrangements, land policies must of necessity include customary land arrangements which can be easily supervised through existing traditional institutional arrangements. Land policy guidelines must of necessity be couched within the socio-cultural milieu of the African society.  This way, customary land-users will have secure right.

Achieving food security will largely be determined by the willingness of African leaders to make a clean break from past business of government and imbibe the principles of good governance, transparency and accountability, rule of law, equity and fairness. It is this “business unusual” that will propel the engine of social and economic growth through the execution of people-oriented programs and institutional reforms. The thrust here is to provide enabling environment for enhancing the productivity and income of the rural poor. If corruption in the public and private sector can be halved by 2015, Africa would have moved some 60% towards attaining food self-sufficiency.

There is need to double development assistance (especially in the wake of the current global economic meltdown) channeled to fight hunger and poverty through community-based projects that target the real producers who often are the vulnerable groups in African countries. Application of aid should be through CBO’s and traditional institutions that are in tune with the local conditions and realities.

Small commercial farms, and not large-scale commercial farms is the answer to the current food crisis in Africa , at least in the foreseeable future.

Jerome Gefu