Four factors holding back Africa’s small-scale farmers

by Birju Patel, Deputy CEO, Export Trading Group 0

There is no education like adversity, observed Benjamin Disraeli, former Prime Minister of Britain. Unfortunately, when it comes to farming in Africa, there’s very little education being drawn from adversity. In fact, there are major obstacles that limit the success of small-scale farming in Africa. These obstacles can be categorised in four sections, namely: 1) climate, 2) technology and education, 3) financing and 4) policy and infrastructure.

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Smallholder farmers in Africa are still among the poorest in the world. It’s hard for them to maximise their potential without modern agricultural technologies, sufficient investment and a distribution structure that remains ill-suited for accessing markets.

Climate change: Africa feels the heat

The current El Nino weather event is the strongest in recorded history, and likely to be the longest-running since the 1950s. Cereal production in sub-Saharan Africa has decreased by approximately 20 per cent and is anticipated to drop further. Small-scale farmers do not have the resources or ability to mitigate or protect themselves from the effects of climate change.

Adaption strategies need to be implemented. The effects of global warming can be managed by optimising inputs – i.e. fertiliser application according to soil analysis and good-quality seeds with high germination potential. There needs to be a shift from traditionally grown staple crops (specifically maize) to cash crops – niche products with higher yields and margin. This, however, will only be possible by providing education and technology. It’s a complex theory and dependent on expensive research. It’s also limited, to an extent, to large-scale commercial farmers.

Education and technology: the farmer’s allies

The agriculture sector in Africa is the least productive in the world (its productivity rate is 36 per cent). To quote Calestous Juma, professor of the Practice of International Development at Harvard Kennedy School: “Medical students train to become doctors; law-school students become lawyers. However, most of those trained in agriculture end up “growing bureaucracies” rather than growing food crops. It is evident that there’s a need for innovation, science and technology to maximise training and the application of skills to the agriculture sector in Africa.”

[READ: Six reasons to invest in Africa]

African governments should create training initiatives that empower farmers to become self-sufficient in food supply. Cultivation of arable land is essential, with access to quality inputs, and there should be an overwhelming support for the “science agenda” to establish methods of increasing crop yields. But while governments can support these initiatives, if we are to create a sustainable platform where a new generation of small-scale farmers can flourish, what’s really required are affordable financing structures.

How do small-scale farmers secure financing?

The answer is simple (even if the solution is more complicated) – by securing land. Unfortunately, small-scale farmers are not necessarily land-owners, so they can’t use land as security to financiers.

In Africa, this is a political issue that will only be resolved if governments practice a “one continent” philosophy – and not merely by jurisdiction. The trend in more sophisticated African markets is input financing (a middleman will finance the input and have the crop as security in return). The obstacle is infrastructure and policy: farm-gate prices in remote areas versus market prices in most instances do not compare favourably.

Policy and infrastructure

In Africa, trade can be restricted by outdated policies, high import duties and border bureaucracy. Inadequate infrastructure within the continent remains an obstacle to small-scale farmers, the majority of whom live and farm in rural areas. The lack of infrastructure does have a silver lining: it creates opportunities for investors who finance physical assets, which could potentially nudge Africa into an infrastructure development boom.

One of the largest obstacles to trade for small-scale farmers, however, is the debate around genetically modified crops. Although research has shown that GM crops themselves do not adversely affect health, some researchers hold that the herbicides used on the crops do.

While African governments face a multitude of challenges, not least the present economic climate, the time is ripe for investment from the private sector. Hunger in Africa still a priority for governments and organisations around the world, and small-scale farmers are at the centre of this possibility.

 The World Economic Forum on Africa is taking place in Kigali, Rwanda from 11 to 13 May.