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Africa's agricultural future - large-scale or small?

Do smallholder systems offer greater advantages for broad-based development? (©FAO/Alessandra Benedetti)
Do smallholder systems offer greater advantages for broad-based development?
©FAO/Alessandra Benedetti

What is the right way forward for agriculture in Africa? Are large, commercial farms needed to drive economic progress, or do smallholder systems offer greater advantages for broad-based development? Awakening Africa's Sleeping Giant, a recent World Bank report, examines these two models in the context of Africa's Guinea Savannah zone - a huge expanse of land in west and southern Africa. It suggests that with the right model, the development of commercial agriculture in the Guinea Savannah would open a new era for African agriculture by supplying domestic, regional and global markets.

In June 2010, the Future Agricultures Consortium convened a workshop at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London to discuss the report, and the wider picture of agricultural development in Africa. The participants had strong views on the relative merits of the two models, and the need to consider a wider range of issues than just economic development. New Agriculturist reflects some of their opinions.

Potential to develop the Guinea Savannah?

I'm a cautious optimist. There is a growing demand for agricultural products from within Africa as well as globally, and eventually there will be a response, people will see there is an opportunity to supply this growing demand. But there are dangers that have to be guarded against in that sort of development and I am slightly sceptical about how effectively they can be guarded against.
Colin Poulton, Research Fellow, SOAS, UK

Several Gulf and Asian countries are using land in Africa to grow food crops for their own populations (©FAO/Sarah Elliot)
Several Gulf and Asian countries are using land in Africa to grow food crops for their own populations
©FAO/Sarah Elliot

I'm a worried sceptic. I am worried because the trends that I see right now unfolding are quite antithetical to a vision of broad-based growth. I am talking about the substantial allocation of land to foreign investors for development of export crops to feed populations in East Asia, in Gulf States. What we see is the potential displacement of large numbers of smallscale farmers giving way to larger corporate forms of agriculture that have fewer linkages into local economies.
Ruth Hall, Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies, (PLAAS) School of Government, University of the Western Cape, South Africa

I am certainly an optimist. I think there is huge potential in African agriculture and particularly in these regions but I think caution is the watchword here. There are different trajectories that can unfold very, very easily in these settings. Some will be highly damaging to both people and environments and some will be positive, poverty reducing and environmentally sustainable. And it is not obvious that current institutional arrangements, policy frameworks or technological options will result in the positive line.
Ian Scoones, Institute of Development Studies (IDS), UK

I would be extremely cautious in what we do to that area. It is hugely biodiverse and there is a lot of potential for the ecosystem services to be completely destroyed. So you may have in the short term increased development to decrease poverty but at the expense of the entire ecosystem collapsing.
Kate Jones, Zoological Society of London, UK

Constraints to agricultural development in the region

The trouble is that governments do not work in terms of biological units, they work in terms of regions, provinces and nationally. So to fulfil the potential there needs to be a recognition that policy should be tailored to the needs of each biome represented in the country, and this is an area that has never been tackled.
Mike Mortimore, Drylands Research, UK

Are smallholder systems or large-scale mechanisation most appropriate for the Guinea savannah? (©FAO/Olivier Asselin)
Are smallholder systems or large-scale mechanisation most appropriate for the Guinea savannah?
©FAO/Olivier Asselin

For me the real gap is a technical gap and the lack of technical skills that will be required to develop the Guinea Savannah zone in a sustainable and affordable manner.
Bruce Lankford, School of International Development, University of East Anglia

I think one of the big issues is land tenure. Nobody is going to start a big farm if you cannot have secure land tenure, and getting people to invest large sums of money into that kind of process is unimaginable at the moment.
Jonathan Rushton, Royal Veterinary College, UK

Agriculture has to compete. And when I talk to young guys and you give them a choice between ploughing their land or buying a motorbike they would rather go for the motorbike. I am trying to widen the perspective to what these people's lives are all about, what they want for their children. Sticking them in the middle of nowhere with a subsidised loan and some acres of land is not going to take them to where they want to go.
Gem Argwings-Kodhek, African Enterprise Challenge Fund, Nairobi

Political will to support agricultural development

It's absolutely critical: without political will you won't get anything. The question is what are the alignments between the technocrats, different interest groups and politicians? Where do those alignments lead and how stable are they?
Andrew Dorward, Professor of Development Economics, SOAS, UK

An informed political debate about how to use African resources  for Africa's benefit is needed (©FAO/Olivier Asselin)
An informed political debate about how to use African resources for Africa's benefit is needed
©FAO/Olivier Asselin

Many African governments still face high levels of debt and rising populations. A key source of income and revenue for those governments is engagement with foreign investors. So while they might have the political will to support broad based growth in agriculture, some of their practices seem to contradict that.
Ruth Hall, PLAAS

Political will does not come from nowhere, it comes from a political process and I think that is the thing that we often forget. We assume that all we need is some political backing to a technocratic managerial process and then everything will be fine but actually what we need is a solid political debate about how to use the resources, the very substantial resources Africa has, for Africa's benefit.
Ian Scoones, IDS

Getting political will across a continent is a challenge, but I think this is the right time for many African countries and many African governments to realise that African agriculture is important in the economic development. There is no way that African development can move forward if there is no focus and investment in agriculture.
Antoinette Sallah, member of Tropical Agriculture Association, UK

Large-scale or smallholder agriculture?

A focus on the smallholder is a better option but often governments would prefer to promote large-scale agriculture given the constraints on agricultural services. It is easier for them to leave it up to large-scale commercial farmers rather than to organise the services for smallholder production.
Kojo Amanor, Institute of African Studies, University of Ghana

Large-scale commercial agriculture could potentially displace large numbers of smallscale farmers (©FAO/Sarah Elliot)
Large-scale commercial agriculture could potentially displace large numbers of smallscale farmers
©FAO/Sarah Elliot

With this land grab issue, everybody is pointing at these big investors as bad guys. I don't think so. We failed to bring any economic development in Africa for 50 years. So if anybody is bringing some economic development, we should try to shape that in a form that is inclusive for development for the African people.
Maja Slingerland, Plant Production Systems Group, Wageningen University, The Netherlands

In areas where there are very few people and therefore very little labour, and we cannot anticipate massive in migration, then there probably would have to be large-scale initiatives. But in areas like Nigeria, which is bursting with people, the smallholder model should be preferred in my opinion.
Mike Mortimore, Drylands Research, UK

There are two options: commercialisation from below generated by smallholders, benefiting livelihoods and commercialisation from above, which is about large-scale appropriation of land captured by elites, large-scale commercial agriculture oriented to markets that do not necessarily have benefits to local economies. And the default, sadly, is the latter.
Ian Scoones, IDS

One key recommendation for agricultural development?

We need better integration between technical and political debates that gets the politicians, the economists, the social scientists, the environmentalists and the agronomists working together and thinking about the same problems and the same opportunities.
Andrew Dorward, SOAS

Smallholders need support in terms of coordination, managing market access, policy on fair pricing and land systems, research and development to make sure that the appropriate technology is available. But in this region, if I was going to plump for one thing to do first, it would be infrastructure development.
Ian Scoones, IDS

Land tenure is a serious concern for many smallholder farmers (©FAO/Olivier Asselin)
Land tenure is a serious concern for many smallholder farmers
©FAO/Olivier Asselin

Talk to the conservation biodiversity people first. Get a better impact assessment. Do some scenario testing of what is going to happen. Find out more about what the ecosystem is and how it is going to respond. The discussion seems to be very focused on the short-term political and profitable gain of what you could get from this system and actually what we need to do is to think long-term.
Kate Jones, Zoological Society of London, UK

The foundation is land tenure reform. Many countries in this region have developed land policy frameworks and land laws, but implementation is very poor. So I think that reforming land tenure systems and creating institutions to implement them is the priority and foundation for all of this development.
Ruth Hall, PLAAS

I think the solutions to Africa's problems lie with the private sector. Empower the private sector to work with research, don't give research money and then tell them to look for the private sector. It is really turning the thing on its head and trying to find from the ultimate beneficiaries what they actually need from the people who are working in their name.
Gem Argwings-Kodhek, African Enterprise Challenge Fund, Nairobi

Date published: July 2010


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