#16 food & farming
Jonas Metzger / Franziska Ollendorf / Anne Siebert

Smallholder Farming under Threat?

Production from smallholder farmers makes an important contribution to global food security and represents the starting point for sustainable rural development. But how do smallholder farmers view current global trends in farming and food? How do they experience the impact on their living environments? We offer three different points of view from Ghana, Malawi and South Africa.

Western consumption habits are spreading globally, and the types of cultivation these require shape the workday of many smallholder farmers in Africa. Demand that seasonal foods be available year round and the mass consumption of meat, tropical fruits and luxury products like cocoa and coffee determine both what is grown as well as the cultivation methods used in many parts of the Global South. External agricultural and development programmes often promote innovations based on global food trends and export production. Smallholder farmers have to decide what demand-based development to adopt. As these field reports from African smallholder farmers demonstrate, externally initiated programmes to improve living conditions in rural areas often cannot sufficiently respond to the challenges of smallholder farming. We offer the perspective and experience of three smallholder farmers from sub-Saharan Africa who work under the premise of a globally integrated agricultural economy.

While he did succeed in supporting his family and sending his children to school, he has never managed to escape poverty.

More income through certification– Kofi‘s story

As a young man, Kofi migrated to the Western Region of Ghana to set up a cocoa farm. He had heard there was a lot of available land that could be used to cultivate cocoa. Kofi had left school at a young age to help his impoverished parents on their cocoa farm. The increase in global demand for Ghanaian quality beans encouraged Kofi to pin his hopes on owning his own cocoa farm one day. Back then, he thought if he only worked hard enough, cocoa would help him escape the poverty cycle his parents were trapped in. He and his wife braved the challenge of creating a farm in the rainforest. Together they cleared the forest and tilled the soil by hand. The danger posed by wild animals, the isolation, and a lack of basic supplies coloured their daily lives. Years passed before the first cocoa beans were ready to be harvested. Today, after more than thirty years, Kofi looks back on those hard, lean years with mixed feelings. While he did succeed in supporting his family and sending his children to school, he has never managed to escape poverty. Income from the farm is just enough to cover the essentials – food, school fees, and illness eat up almost all his earnings.

“If you apply the new cultivation methods correctly, your yield goes up. But they involve a lot more work and quite a few problems.”

A new, innovative approach has recently been receiving praise: “Chocolate consumers want better quality cocoa and higher yields. So they are teaching us how to increase both,” Kofi says. He is referring to the Dutch UTZ certification programme that aims to improve the production and living conditions of smallholder farmers. He signed on as soon as he heard about the programme, and that he could earn a bonus of two euros per sack of cocoa beans. Participants have to attend seminars, organize with other smallholder farmers, and provide proof that their beans are grown in accordance with the UTZ sustainability standards. After three years in the programme, he sums up his experience thusly: “If you apply the new cultivation methods correctly, your yield goes up. But they involve a lot more work and quite a few problems.” The agrochemicals are either not available or too expensive, some of the cultivation methods taught almost impossible to implement, the necessary equipment non-existent. At this point, he cannot do without the bonus anymore, though his earnings are still much too low to help him escape poverty.

Problems with intensification – Rehema’s experience

Maize farmer Rehema Nursin from Malawi doesn’t just grow for the global market; her crop also serves to feed her family. She and Kofi share one important goal – she too wants to find a way out for her children and herself. She is facing a whole host of difficulties though. Her fields are a two-hour walk from her village. She walks there every day and returns well after nightfall. She straps her two-year-old child onto her back, a hoe in one hand, a bag with water and food for the day in the other. Since her husband left her, all the work in the fields falls to her alone. Her plot is less than a hectare, and she plants maize, vegetables and soy beans. The crops seldom produce enough to provide enough food for the year. A recent drought reduced the last harvest in June 2015 to just five 50 kilogram sacks of maize. This is enough for one meal a day until the end of October. Then she will have to work as a day labourer in other farmers’ fields. In Malawi, international development actors, governments and the private sector are pushing the use of modern agricultural resources, such as hybrid maize seeds and chemical fertilizers in particular, to make smallholder farming more lucrative. In keeping with the Western industrial model of agriculture, this could provide smallholder farmers with a decent income. But this puts Rehema between a rock and a hard place. She has to buy the hybrid seeds each and every year, and their high yield is dependent on chemical fertilizer. She still has hardly any money, since the income from her crops is quite low compared to the investment needed. The intensification is slowly degrading her land, making it more and more difficult to survive without chemical fertilizer even if she were to plant local types of maize. So she now finds herself in a new vicious circle, forced to spend most of her money on hybrid seeds and chemical fertilizer. She is too old to migrate to the city, but if she had her way her children would get out and never have to work as farmers. She wants them to attend school so they can find a good job with a steady income in the city.

Conditions and operating costs for modernizing smallholder farming are often too high to allow farmers to lastingly improve their lives.

Rehema’s experience shows the trap many farmers are caught in. Conditions and operating costs for modernizing smallholder farming are often too high to allow farmers to lastingly improve their lives. Many smallholder farmers therefore decide to turn their backs on farming altogether and move to the cities.

Emancipation through urban farming– Lorna’s perspective

The experience of South African urban farmer Lorna mirrors Rehema’s. Lorna’s parents were smallholder farmers, but moved to the city in hopes of finding a better life. She has lived in George on the Western Cape ever since. So far, she has been unable to find a steady job, so she lives day to day constrained by the strictures of poverty, forced to spend a large percentage of her income on food. Together with her neighbours, Lorna founded an initiative aimed at promoting the cultivation of diverse crops to encourage a more balanced and mindful diet, and to give people the power to decide what lands on their plates. The initiative wants to break free of the food industry as far as they can and work to a healthier and more balanced eating. She feels that much of the food available on the market is linked to a more upscale, Western diet, but not to a more sustainable lifestyle. At the same time, planting their own food reduces the amount of money that members of the collective have to spend on food. Lorna is proud of the sweet potatoes and pumpkins that flourish among the almost two-meter high stalks of maize. Growing sweet potatoes, she reports, is much easier than other potatoes. They require less water, no fertilizer, and are much more nutritious. She follows the permaculture principle and carefully chooses crops that grow well together. One plant might serve to provide nutrients, another loosens the soil, while a third provides shade. Her garden is limited to the small space in front of her house. Verdant gardens in front of houses throughout the neighbourhood have recently changed the way it looks.

The community shares seeds, knowledge and the literal fruits of their labours, which increases the sense of solidarity.

But criminality, a lack of educational opportunities and HIV/AIDS continue to plague the quarter. A local doctor also recently diagnosed many in the community with obesity, which inspired her to suggest the neighbourhood initiative. Backed by the doctor’s experience and with the support of an NGO, many fallow areas have been transformed into gardens. More and more inhabitants are returning to agriculture and there is growing interest in innovative cultivation methods like direct sowing and permaculture. The community shares seeds, knowledge and the literal fruits of their labours, which increases the sense of solidarity. There is a widespread desire to grow all their own food, and perhaps have some vegetables and fruit leftover to sell at the market. But who does the land actually belong to, and will there be enough water for the next planting? These questions remain unanswered. Still Lorna is optimistic. She sees real potential, especially given that the project is deigned to fill direct, personal need. She wants her children to learn how to farm as well.

The smallholder farmer becomes the last link in a long chain that depends on global food trends.

Locally oriented and participative initiatives for food sovereignty

These field reports reflect the difficulties and challenges of smallholder farming. Income from the raw material cocoa beans, for example, is too low, to improve living conditions, something the introduction of private sustainability standards offers little relief. The experience of a Malawi farmer who is the sole breadwinner for her family shows that intensification is too expensive for the benefits to outweigh the investment and provide farmers with the desired standard of living. In response both envision future – for their children, though not for themselves – outside of smallholder farming. The range of experience shows that external programmes to improve rural living conditions often do not take local challenges sufficiently into account. In contrast locally driven initiatives designed to be participative from the outset seem to offer a better perspective, as the urban farming example from South Africa suggests. They are primarily aimed at meeting local need for food and food security and not to fall in line with global food trends.

Additionally it is clear that the premise of integration into global value chains goes hand in hand with neglecting local realities. The smallholder farmer becomes the last link in a long chain that depends on global food trends. There must be more awareness of the long-range effects of global food trends and respect for farmers’ decision-making autonomy. The focus needs to shift to more viable alternatives, and promoting a sense of solidarity - even over long distances. The concept of food sovereignty emphases these and respects the importance of local interests. This is the only way agriculture can remain an attractive field of work for younger people over the long term.

Photo: “2DU Kenya 77” by CIAT
2010 - licenced under Creative Commons Attribution (2.0)

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