Can smallholders still deliver development in rural Africa?

While small farmer development has been critical in African development in the past — for example, in the cases of cocoa farmers in southern Ghana in the late 19th Century, coffee smallholders in Kenya in the 1950s and 1960s, or Mali’s cotton growers in the 1990s — some wonder whether they can be part of future agricultural development.

Their doubts arise on two grounds. One argument is that technical advances increasingly require heavy capital investment, access to rapid advice, and technical education to appreciate how the innovations work. An example is precision farming, where GPS can be used to adjust seed and fertiliser application rates within fields. The other argument is that supply chains are evolving to require higher and more standardised quality, large lots delivered on time, with demands for certification and traceability — conditions that small farmers cannot meet.

Similar problems may arise with mitigation of climate change: if farmers are to be rewarded for capturing carbon on their farms, then how can this be monitored, reported and verified across millions of smallholdings?

Since small farmers have learned to uses new technologies in the past, and to deliver to unfamiliar supply chains with novel demands, then it is likely that some of them can meet these challenges. Essentially, the challenge is to reduce the high transactions costs involved when input suppliers, technical specialists, bankers and large-scale buyers interact with small farmers. There are ways to do this: contract farming and farmer associations, for example. But more needs to be understood about how to set these up, while (in the case of farmer co-operatives) avoiding the failures of the past.

Further reading

The paper below by FAC researcher Steve Wiggins addresses some of the doubts about small farmers’ role in future agricultural development in Africa.