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What’s the best way to help Africa’s small farmers?

In sub-Saharan Africa, 60-80% of the population live off farming
In sub-Saharan Africa, 60-80% of the population live off farming

Across the world, around 850 million people in the developing world are affected by chronic hunger; the vast majority of these live in the countryside. Laurinda Luffman takes a look at how this problem is being tackled in Africa.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that 80% of those who go hungry live in the countryside, with just 20% in cities and slums. Some of these rural-dwellers are landless, nomadic or fishermen, but most are small farmers and growers.

The hunger of millions is nothing new to the world, but a particularly severe global food crisis in 2008 acted as a wake-up call. Governments began to realise that when people go hungry en masse, and particularly when hunger spreads from the countryside into the cities, population unrest can be explosive.

There is therefore a growing acceptance that greater investment will be needed in farming and food production. Not only that, but farming methods will need to change, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, where populations are rising rapidly. By 2050, 40% of all births look set to take place in sub-Saharan Africa.

Shabelle River Gode, EthiopiaFocus on growing more food

This is why many African governments have been focusing on growing more food. The obvious way to do this is to introduce methods which have increased production in developing countries, such as encouraging the commercialisation of farming and through the use of inputs such as pesticides and fertilisers.
In Malawi, for example, when cheaper fertilisers were made available to farmers, the country began exporting food for the first time. However, southern regions of Malawi are once again experiencing food insecurity. Despite subsidised fertilisers, poor harvests left around 1.6 million Malawians facing hunger in 2012. So what’s the answer?

Do fertilisers bring long-term benefits to the rural poor?

There is no doubt that free or low-cost fertilisers can help small farmers raise food production levels over a number of growing seasons. But new studies are casting doubt whether they pay off in the longer term, particularly for the poorest in Africa. In many sub-Saharan countries, soils are acidic or have low organic matter, conditions which respond less well to traditional fertilisers. Indeed, fertilisers do not address the problem of declining soil fertility because of the over-use of land.

New evidence suggests that spending money on programmes such as crop and seed research or improving farming methods such as tilling and irrigation could have a greater impact on agricultural growth and poverty reduction in rural areas.

Nuba farmer in SudanThe environmental issue

Food production in Sub-Saharan Africa is also becoming particularly vulnerable to the threats of climate change, especially since so many of the region’s people rely on consistent weather patterns and rain-fed agriculture. In sub-Saharan African countries, 60-80% of the population earn their living by farming (compared with 5% in the European Union) and these small farmers often have no money for mechanised tools or irrigation systems. It is common for growers, most of whom are women, to own very small plots of land, often just one or two hectares (Western European farmers have an average of 40 hectares) and work their land by hand, with tools such as hoes and machetes.

Helping developing farmers cope with climate change and increase food production therefore represents a unique challenge, but one which must be met. Many agricultural experts assert the only way to do this is to work in harmony with Africa’s unique soils and climates and promote ‘mosaic’ solutions which work for small farmers. So for example, in some areas farmers are being encouraged to implement agro-forestry, where trees and shrubs are grown alongside crops and livestock, which has been shown to boost yields as well as providing additional fruits, berries or income-making materials.

Balancing needs and budgets

The challenge for African governments is therefore to balance the need for increased food production with constrained resources and environmental sustainability. Most experts agree this will require new thinking and the abandonment old agricultural policies.

Therefore, while around 10 African governments continue to offer their farmers subsidised fertilisers, this month, the Zambian government announced it would reduce such subsidies for farmers (as well as fuel and maize subsidies).

Woman in TanzaniaIt would be fair to say that the high cost of subsidies is the main reason for Zambia’s decision. The Zambian state only has around 325 dollars to spend on each person annually (which has to cover education, law enforcement, health and everything else). Therefore, the high expenditure on fertiliser and maize subsidies was too much and left little money for other food investment activities.

The loss of subsidies has angered some small-scale farmers in Zambia, at a time when inadequate rains and blights have forced many to replant crops. Without the fertilisers, they warn that Zambia’s maize production and national food security will be threatened. However, others argue that subsidised farming inputs have been in place for a decade and they have done little to reduce rural poverty in Zambia.

New proposals are clearly needed for how money could be better spent, such as on improving road infrastructure to help rural communities transport surplus crops or investing in new seeds and methods of agriculture or giving farmers easier access to finance. But for the moment, there are only proposals. And fresh ideas are of little comfort to ordinary Zambians struggling to survive and seeing the price of maize rising. As one commentator noted to the news agency IRIN, unless new measures are introduced quickly to help the country’s growers, the cost may soon be counted in other ways, as more Zambians may be forced to sign up for social welfare schemes.

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