Global Food Security – The Future of the Smallholder Farmer

From Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

Photo from Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation website

On Monday 28th January I had the pleasure of attending a wonderful talk organised by the University of Cambridge. It was the second in a series of three talks surrounding the issue of feeding our growing population. Having spent time last year in Brazil, working with small farmers, and the NGOs supporting them, this is an issue that is of great importance to me, and also one in which I was interested in hearing the panellists points of view. I felt that Dr Marion Guillon ended the debate with three words that will determine the future for smallholder farmers, “necessity, attractivity and competitivity”. Without these, there will be no reason for the smallholder to stay, but from my experience, and from what the panellists said, then I believe that there is hope, at least in some parts of the world, to believe that the smallholder may be able to consolidate and thrive well into the future.

So what is happening in the world of the small farmer? What work is being done? And what do they need to be able to thrive in the future?

Feminisation of agriculture

In recent times, agriculture has become more and more feminised. This is a phenomenon that is the result of male migration to urban centres, leaving mothers and children in the rural areas to tend the land. This is therefore creating new adaptations for women farmers, as they have more responsibilities that reduce the amount of time that they can spend on the land, such as child rearing and cooking for their families. It also represents an opportunity for women to become more empowered. With access to training, then they can really take a proactive step to becoming economically more independent, and also develop their agricultural work as a business. This is something that I saw when I was working in Brazil, with CECOR. Within the community that we stayed, the majority of those working the land was principally the job of the women of the community – they tended to the small hold, and the chickens, whilst the men tended more to the larger livestock if they had any. Through CECOR women had become empowered through access to selling their produce at a local agroecological market. This passed responsibilities to women and gave them more autonomy.

Land policies

Judi Wakhungu, from the African Centre from Technology Studies, stressed that in Africa the problem is not so much with policies as in the enforcement of such policies, which therefore relies very heavily on support from the government leadership.

The issue of landgrabbing is something very much on the agenda these days, and countries’ responses to this will be indicative of the success of smallholder farming in these regions in the future. Judi also highlighted this point, and drew our attention to great variations of behaviour across the continent. She stressed that countries like Kenya and Ghana have much more progressive policies that do not “give” land up to foreign investors, unlike what is happening in Ethiopia, for example, leading to the forced displacement of many.

Whilst I do not know a great deal about African policies and am still doing research, in Brazil the experience was that there is a lot being done to redistribute land to the previously landless, as was the case in Poço do Serrote. However, I am also aware of the strong push for sugar cane production and soya in the country, which causes similar problems to those mentioned above. I will be writing a blog on a later date to look into the issues of property rights in more detail.

Crop diversification

The issue of crop diversification, and the cultivation of site specific crops, is also very important on many levels. With the increasing problems related to climate change, and also environmental effects coming from the loss of diversification, which makes crops much more susceptible to mass failure through disease, this is essential for smallholder farmers to be able to maintain their livelihood and feed themselves.

Efforts are being made for smallholders to revert to more traditional crops for the areas in which they live. This in the case of Africa means reverting to cultivation of traditional crops such as sorghum, millet, yams and cassava. This is important as these crops are usually more resistant that wheat and other traditional cash crops. Sam Dryer, who was at the debate speaking on behalf of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, explained how the foundation is working with small agricultural communities working towards these aims, and also working in conjunction with local markets and chains to encourage the sales of alternative produce, to gain an entrance of these products into the market.

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Farmers’ organisations

The importance of creating “circles of trust”, as termed by Sam Dryer, was raised on various occasions during the debate. This often comes in the form of farmers’ organisations, unions, and also, in reference to foundations such as the Melinda Gates Foundation, or INGOs, for example, making sure that people that go and do the training, or workshops, or whatever work it is, have a real connection with the people that are receiving the services.

When I was in Brazil this was exactly how CECOR worked. They were a local NGO, which was comprised of people from varying backgrounds, some were even farmers themselves. When they were doing any training, they would train someone from a community, who would then in turn go to train other people in the community, who could then move to train other communities. This ground up approach ensures the empowerment of the people in question, and also ensures that they can work with people they trust.

Training and education

Education is essential to ensure the maintenance of healthy soil, to ensure better nutrition (not just growing cash crops, for example), to allowing smallholder farmers access to markets and to be able to access markets in an equitable way for themselves. Through farmers organisations this education is possible as in encourages an exchange of information and support network that otherwise would not be there.

The sorts of training that were available to farmers in the area of Brazil where I was based were varied. They tended to be offered either by local NGOs or also Government Departments. You can see a description of one such event we attended in my blogpost about feed preparation and storage. This is actually a subject that is particularly relevant to working within farmers’ organisations, as the access to the group can lead to the possibilities of buying between the group the equipment necessary for drying and storing crops to reduce losses.

Funding programmes

Finally facilitating the entrance of smallholder farmers into the market through the use of funds and also the provision of insurance is also essential to the success of the smallholder farmer in the future. These people have traditionally been excluded from formal routes to credit, but through technology, particularly such as mobile phones, access to banking systems and bank accounts is becoming easier.

Judi mentioned a programme called the “One Acre Fund”, which provides farmers that form part of farmers’ groups with $75 dollars with which to gain access to education, money to buy quality seeds and fertiliser and also  market facilitation which can be facilitated through handling and storage. This is something that promotes group organisation, which work as support networks, as well as giving smallholder farmers an opportunity to start up and gain access to markets.

There is a long way to go, and in this blog I have not even touched upon many of the relevant issues nor gone into the detail necessary to look into any of the topics above described. This will keep for a later date. However, I do think that the debate provided a good background from which to start thinking and looking at how the small farmer should figure in the future of agriculture, and how this can be made beneficial for everyone.

 

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