Agricultural development: business as usual is not an option

Following the 2008 global food price hikes and riots, national governments and transnational corporations are increasingly interested in investing in large-scale African agricultural projects. While these land acquisitions gather pace, 925 million people remain undernourished worldwide, with 239 million living in sub-Saharan Africa. In this new context, the question is not only how sustainable large-scale industrial agriculture is, but also what model of food production and farming is most effective in addressing the question of hunger – and for whom.

Those people most at risk of going hungry are ironically often directly involved in producing food. Many of them are small-scale African farmers. What needs to be done at micro, meso and macro levels to improve their food security? This question and ways forward were discussed at the Food we want – Sustainable, Local, Fair event held at IIED last week.

Food security is defined as existing when “all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs” (World Food Summit, 1996 PDF).  It’s a complex issue, interlinked with health, sustainable economic development, environment and trade.

The majority of farmers in Africa are women – they contribute 70% of food production and account for nearly half of all farm labour (such as cultivation, weeding, harvesting), and 80–90% of food processing, storage and transport. Yet they receive less than 10% of small farm credit and own just 1% of land because they often lack rights to the land they till. Land rights tend to be held by men or kinship groups controlled by men, and women have access mainly through a male relative, usually a father or husband. Even then, women are routinely obliged to hand over the proceeds of any farm sales to a male and have little say over how those earnings are used.

Giving women farmers more secure access to the land they farm and improving their access to appropriate resources – such as seeds, fertilizers, credit –  and to technologies, markets, land and decision making processes – would pay multiple dividends in the form of increased agricultural productivity. It would also be the first step to achieving  food sovereignty and ultimately, improve household nutrition.

But how to improve access to agricultural information, services, training and opportunities so that women farmers become better integrated into wider commercial markets? According to panelist Micheline Ravololonarisoa, formerly with UN Women, there is increasing female participation in decision making relating to agricultural practises emerging from grassroots organisations in many regions of Africa.

Changing mind sets is the first step. Agri-businesses must significantly shift their thinking about women in the global marketplace and secure the notion of women as economic agents in agriculture. For this shift in mindset to be effective and sustainable, it must extend beyond the global food trade to the male-dominated arena of politics. 

Promising focus: African family farming

A promising focus for reinvestment would be African family farming combined with modern agroecological approaches. One solution put forward by one of the panelists, Michel Pimbert, is an agricultural system that combines modern science with indigenous knowledge systems. These agroecological models would mimic biological processes found in nature, while being supported by cutting edge scientific research. These options would yield income, fulfil cultural and spiritual functions and be more sustainable long term as shown by Jules Pretty in his report. Pimbert emphasises the need to scale up in order to viably produce food for populations who lack access to agricultural land or the means to produce their own food. According to Pimbert, the framework of food sovereignty creates the conditions needed to shape agricultural investments and policies to facilitate more biodiverse, resilient and equitable models of production in Africa.

“Food can only be secure in your own stomach,” said the third panelist, William Lume, Director of the Centre for Inter-African Relations (CEFIAR), who warned that the pursuit of national and international food security was misguided, without first addressing the food and nutritional needs of the individual. Food insecurity in the developing world is a structural issue underpinned by centuries of unfair trade policies and prevalent power structures with transnational corporations and governments at the top and smallholder farmers and food consumers at the bottom. Most of the infrastructure in Africa today has been designed so that each country competes in a race to export, and not to facilitate intra-community trade.

Tracing the history of food production back to colonial times, he described how local sources of nutrition have often been bypassed in favour of international trading priorities. Post-independence political thinkers, such as Kwame Nkrumah, having been educated by Christian missionaries, followed the European/Roman model of food production and consumption: “…wine and cheese and the like, and if you grow food, narrow it to the grains that are fast maturing….anything that takes a long period of time and is sustainable to the locals, do not include it in scientific research.” This thinking was reemphasised by post-independence governments, with the exception of some, such as the African liberator, Amílcar Cabral, who considered agricultural production by individuals to be a political tool.

Complementary to the approach outlined by Michel Pimbert, Dr Lume advocated a focus on “technique rather than technology,” emphasising the importance of indigenous agricultural knowledge, but allowing for affordable technology to be introduced.  Lume emphasised that research and interventions to improve food security should remain at the local level and community level, with a focus on improving farmers’ knowledge of nutrition. The nutritional needs of young people and older people are not the same – diverse and sustainable food sources would ensure everyone gets the food they need. In response to a question regarding how to reduce the “food miles” needed to get food onto the average UK dinner table, Lume suggested widespread household “microplanting” of vegetables in homes here in the UK and in Africa would reduce food miles and the market demand for those foods.  

Summing up, Ethel del Pozo-Vergnes, a researcher from IIED’s Sustainable Markets Group, highlighted ways forward for a food secure future:

  1. With the majority of food in Africa being produced by small scale farmers, it is vital to recognise the importance of local, informal markets as a key method for selling their produce.
  2. Creating resilient, sustainable agricultural systems that can withstand stresses such as climate change requires linking agricultural and ecological practices more closely.
  3. Food insecurity is often driven by inequitable export policies and trade agreements –  farmers need to be considered and involved in policy making in the future. 
  4. Women’s crucial contribution to food production and the economy needs to be recognised and their visibility raised, particularly at national level.
  5. The nutritional needs of individuals and households must be better understood and considered when developing food security interventions.
  6. With urban migration, there are fewer young people left in rural areas, leaving mainly older women and children running the farm. Understanding the drivers and innovations that could engage youth in agriculture might help keep them farming in the future.

Sustainable farming systems using indigenous and modern farming techniques can be built on the foundations of the family household and farm. Increasingly involving women and smallholder farmers in agricultural and food trade policy creation is also crucial for addressing hunger, poverty and the effects of climate change, and can begin to build a more food secure future for farmers in Africa.

Find out more

Olivier De Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food

What works for women: Proven approaches for empowering women smallholders and achieving food security

Written jointly by Anthony Stonehouse, a consultant with IIED, and Nicole Kenton, co-editor of Participatory Learning and Action.

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