Can African smallholders farm themselves out of poverty?

Harris, D and Chamberlin, J and Mausch, K (2019) Can African smallholders farm themselves out of poverty? The Conversation.

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A great deal of research on agriculture in Africa is organized around the premise that intensification can take smallholder farmers out of poverty. The emphasis in programming often focuses on technologies that increase farm productivity and management practices that go along with them. Yet the returns of such technologies are not often evaluated within a whole-farm context. And – critically – the returns for smallholders with very little available land have not received sufficient attention. To support smallholders in their efforts to escape poverty by adopting modern crop varieties, inputs and management practices, it’s necessary to know if their current resources – particularly their farms – are large enough to generate the requisite value. Two questions can frame this. How big do farms need to be to enable farmers to escape poverty by farming alone? And what alternative avenues can lead them to sustainable development? These issues were explored in a paper in which we examined how much rural households can benefit from agricultural intensification. In particular we, together with colleagues, looked at the size of smallholder farms and their potential profitability and alternative strategies for support. In sub-Saharan Africa smallholder farms are, on average, smaller than two hectares. It’s difficult to be precise about the potential profitability of farms in developing countries. But it’s likely that the upper limit for most farms optimistically lies between $1,000 and $2,000 per hectare per year. In fact the actual values currently achieved by farmers in sub-Saharan Africa are much less. The large profitability gap between current and potential performance per hectare of smallholder farms could, in theory, be narrowed if farmers adopted improved agricultural methods. These could include better crop varieties and animal breeds; more, as well as more efficient, use of fertilisers; and better protection from losses due to pests and diseases. But are smallholder farms big enough so that closing the profitability gap will make much difference to their poverty status? Our research suggests that they are not. Even if they were able to achieve high levels of profitability, the actual value that could be generated on a small farm translated into only a small gain in income per capita. From this we conclude that many, if not most, smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa are unlikely to farm themselves out of poverty – defined as living on less than $1.90 per person per day. This would be the case even if they were to make substantial improvements in the productivity and profitability of their farms. That’s not to say that smallholder farmers shouldn’t be supported. The issue, rather, is what kind of support best suits their circumstances.

Item Type: Article
Divisions: Research Program : Innovation Systems for the Drylands (ISD)
CRP: CGIAR Research Program on Grain Legumes and Dryland Cereals (GLDC)
Uncontrolled Keywords: African SmallHolder Farmers, Poverty
Subjects: Others > Smallholder Farmers
Others > African Agriculture
Others > Poverty
Depositing User: Mr Arun S
Date Deposited: 24 Dec 2019 03:38
Last Modified: 24 Dec 2019 03:38
Official URL:
Acknowledgement: UNSPECIFIED
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