Seven papers unpick debates on African agriculture and rural development

To mark World Food Day, IIED, ODI and IDS have launched the first seven of 12 new papers addressing agricultural and rural development debates in sub-Saharan Africa.
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Insight by 
Barbara Adolph
Laura Silici
15 October 2014
A farmer near Bagré dam in Burkina Faso dries paddy rice (Photo: Barbara Adolph/IIED)

A farmer near Bagré dam in Burkina Faso dries paddy rice (Photo: Barbara Adolph/IIED)

World Food Day celebrates the anniversary of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization's creation on 16 October 1945, and is a good occasion to reflect on the challenges of achieving food security worldwide. This year’s theme, 'Family Farming: Feeding the world, caring for the earth', was chosen to raise the profile of family farming and smallholder farmers.

There is general agreement that family farming plays important roles in eradicating hunger and poverty, providing food security and nutrition, improving livelihoods, managing natural resources, protecting the environment, and achieving sustainable development. However, the debates around the specific policies and investments needed for this are as heated as ever.

In sub-Saharan Africa in particular, the challenges of feeding a growing and increasingly urbanised population, while increasing household incomes for rural producers, have given rise to fierce debate and contested recommendations.

A new form of Afro-optimism

IIED, the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) and the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) have teamed up to explore these debates by commissioning research with funding from the Department for International Development (DFID) and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), and we are pleased to publish the first seven papers today.

We wanted to see what has changed since 2001, when influential papers in an issue of Development Policy Review entitled "Rethinking rural development" suggested the power of agriculture to drive development was declining, as more and more people sought jobs in other sectors.

Today, the world is a different place. Agriculture is firmly back on the African development agenda, but the political and institutional environment has changed. Most rural Africans now live and farm in liberalised markets, which most African and international policy forums assume to be the best basis for economic activities.

This shift has been accompanied by changes in the framing and narratives that underpin policy discourse and processes. Mainstream debates on agricultural policy now orbit around notions like opportunity, competition, entrepreneurialism, value chains and public-private partnership, resulting in an enterprise-agrarian variant of Afro-optimism.

Liberalisation, coupled with rising food prices, has also sparked interest among private investors in Africa's agricultural land and commodities. African institutions such as the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) seek to help African countries reach a higher path of economic growth through agriculture-led development and boosting agricultural productivity. Donors such as the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition are keen to support this vision.

Agricultural input dealers in Selingué, Mali (Photo: Barbara Adolph/IIED)

But not everyone is happy with these developments. Those questioning the effectiveness of liberalisation to catalyse sustainable and fair development point out that many big questions remain unanswered.

  • Will smallholder farmers drive agricultural growth or will such growth side-line these farmers?
  • Will 'farming as a business' contribute to rural poverty, unemployment and migration, or support the growth of the rural non-farm economy? and
  • What about agroecology and food sovereignty?

Our new papers shed light on such questions. They aim to improve the understanding of agricultural and rural development in Africa in the context of both long-standing and new drivers of change, so as to stimulate debate and research, and contribute to improved policy and food security outcomes.

T.S. Jayne, Ferdinand Meyer and Lulama Ndibongo Traub investigate 'megatrends' such as rising food and energy prices, climate change, urbanisation and demographic transitions that are shaping African economic, political and social landscapes. They discuss how policy choices will influence each of four plausible scenarios for African food systems, and argue that the state can play a major role to engage the public in determining what a 'good society' looks like.

Douglas Gollin asks what type of investment is best for the viability of smallholder systems. He concludes that the implications for development policy are not straightforward, as the priorities vary across and within countries due to the highly heterogeneous nature of the smallholder sector.

Felicity J. Proctor discusses emerging policy implications for economic diversification in rural sub-Saharan Africa. She explores the potential of bringing rural and urban development policies together, ideally within a territorial or regional development framework, to strengthen the market and service linkages between rural and urban areas.

David Booth investigates the scope for reforming African agricultural policy choices. While recognising the difficulties that many countries face in developing the agricultural policies they need to transform their economies, he encourages policymakers to abandon 'pessimistic' political-economy diagnostics. Instead he provides evidence that social and economic reforms can be achieved 'against the odds' when local actors are empowered to pursue a politically smart, entrepreneurial approach.

Henry Bernstein and Carlos Oya distinguish different approaches to markets that affect rural sub-Saharan Africa. They propose a political economy approach as an effective way to grasp the complex social dynamics of 'real markets', the subsequent class differentiation of 'small farmers' and how this affects rural 'livelihood diversification'.

Andrew Dorward and Ephraim Chirwa review the changing paradigms, politics and theories associated with input subsidy programmes. Their paper discusses how such programmes can improve and realise their potential to deliver major benefits to smallholder farmers and wider economies.

Towela Nyirenda-Jere and John Kazembe look at the role of knowledge management and information and communications technologies (ICTs). They conclude that the capacity to collect and analyse locally-relevant data for policymaking is still low and the linkages between ICTs, knowledge management and policymaking are not yet well established.

The remaining papers in this series, which we will publish later this year, will focus on agricultural innovation systems, the social relations of agrarian transitions, rural resource 'grabs', and the future of rural financial services.

We hope that papers stimulate further debates on difficult and contested questions. What do you think? We look forward to your comments.