Outcomes of eDialogue Session 1 (August 27) Session 2: Local Perspectives on Small-Scale Farming

By Lauren Barredo, 31 Aug, 2020

On August 27, 2020, the SDSN, Foresight4Food, IFAD, and APRA co-hosted the second in a series of eDialogues on the future of small-scale farming. The goal of the series is to present the latest thinking of experts working on the front lines to support small-scale agriculture, and this second session looked at the challenges smallholders face and opportunities for improvement in yields and standards of living at the local level. The event was supported by a number of vlogs (video blogs) from the field, which can be viewed on SDSN Agriculture’s YouTube channel. If you would like to submit a vlog for inclusion, please do so via this google form.

Session 2 Contributors

Ken Giller & Jim Woodhill opened the session with welcoming remarks. They summarized the key points raised in session 1, namely (i) that we should stop regarding smallholder farmers as a uniform group, and rather embrace their diversity and offer tailored approaches, (ii) that we need to understand which kinds of households have viable futures as smallholder farmers and which do not, and in some cases support alternative livelihoods, (iii) understand which markets are accessible for smallholders and on what terms, and (iv) ensure the many people worldwide who depend on small-scale agriculture are included in interventions to meet SDGs 1 and 2 (no poverty and no hunger).

Following the opening remarks we watched a vlog from Jonathan Mugabe, a Highland Banana Farmer in Uganda, which described some of the challenges young farmers face, especially access to land and knowledge.


After the video, we asked our panel to describe the opportunities they see for small-scale farmers in the region(s) where they work.  

Theresa Ampadu-Boakye, Monitoring and Evaluation Specialist at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Nairobi, spoke first. She said the biggest opportunity she has seen is interest from the private sector to provide information to smallholder farmers. There is a recognition of the need for farmers to access knowledge, and a good example in Nigeria where a firm is providing a package of services to help farmers tailor what inputs are needed. This targets smallholders with internet access growing legumes, cereals, maize, and cassava.

Ajay Vir Jakhar spoke next; Ajay is a citrus farmer based in Punjab, India, and Chairman of the Bharat Krishak Samaj Farmers’ Forum. He described how small-scale farmers today are increasingly dependent on market forces to put food on the table, and that farmers are ever more food insecure. His work focuses a lot on livestock operations and home gardening to meet local food needs. India has also had great success with milk cooperatives, which have raised farmers’ income, and can be a model to scale up and increase the number of farmers participating in cooperatives.

Kofi Takyi Asante, Research Fellow at the University of Ghana, described opportunities for policy and for communities. In Ghana, the agriculture sector has recently seen a lot of policy attention from the government, for example a project that subsidizes fertilizer. The effectiveness of such policies is supported by evidence that farmers can respond rapidly to incentives. In the oil palm sector in Ghana, some small-scale farmers are able to enter into contracts with large estates (i.e. processors), and they are more successful than farmers that cannot enter into these agreements. These farmers also depend on non-farm income. And they are also seeing that some farmers are investing in simple processing systems to increase the storage time of the oil so they can sell later at higher prices.

Regis Chikowo, Professor at the University of Zimbabwe and Associate Professor at Michigan State University, spoke about the ageing of farmers, saying that young people want jobs in town, they do not want to farm. He sees a phenomenon of the people who cannot find employment in town returning to the village to farm, and there is an opportunity here as this group is energetic, well educated, and technologically savvy. They could revolutionize smallholder agriculture in Africa. Chikowo also noted that with good management and extension, small farms can be self-sufficient. Infrastructure like irrigation could allow year-round farming, but we have not seen a lot of investment in this in Africa. The key constraint is low productivity; soils are highly degraded and many are working in dryland farming systems. Farmers also need access to reasonably priced inputs. If they cannot access this, they look to off-farm income, like charcoal production, and this degrades forests. These are extreme and desperate measures to earn income, because farming alone is insufficient. Local fertilizer production would lower the cost of inputs (i.e. costly imported fertilizer), creating jobs locally and raising farmers’ incomes.

Audax Rukonge, Executive Director of ANSAF, described several emerging opportunities. There are a large number of college graduates that are not offered formal employment, and so agriculture can employ these people as business developers, entrepreneurs, and service providers. In Tanzania, farmers produce many commodities, and there are many opportunities for new businesses around them. Secondly, Tanzania imports a lot of edible oil, and with sunflowers, as one example, could produce much of this domestically. At the moment Tanzania only produces 45% of domestic consumption, so there is lots of room for growth, and even potential to export regionally if they reach 100% of demand. Tanzania imports a lot of food commodities which could be produced locally. There is also lots of opportunity for trade within Africa of these items, and certain countries will have competitive advantages, for example Tanzania produces a lot of cereals, and could trade more with neighboring countries.

Hannigton Odame, Executive Director of the Centre for African Bio-Entrepreneurship, shared an opportunity to link agriculture, which is not doing very well, with industries that are doing well, such as tourism. In Kenya, the hospitality and tourism sector is doing very well, but international visitors are eating European cuisine instead of local foods. There is a great opportunity, especially for women and youth, as food entrepreneurs. Second, intergenerational partnerships are a great opportunity. Many people who own farms employ older, low-skilled labor to farm land in rural areas, while they live in cities and work in urban professions. Absentee investors could do a lot more to hire professionalized services of better skilled and innovative young people, and expand productivity. There is also an opportunity for women and youth in agri-finance, marketing, extension, and advisory services. Disruptive technologies and innovations such as mobile phones and online banking makes this possible.

Steve Wiggins, Principal Research Fellow at the Overseas Development Institute, shared a historical perspective. He contrasted the poor performance of the 1980s with the improvements you see today; specifically (i) growing urban markets, especially for higher value perishable crops, (ii) increasing access to technology and the services that it can provide, such as access to knowledge and to finance, and (iii) better government policies in most countries and more investment relative to 40 years ago. There are many great examples of young entrepreneurs offering services to farmers digitally.

The second set of reflections looked at the scale of the opportunities described above, and which demographics or kinds of farmers could be best targeted for interventions.

Theresa Ampadu-Boakye discussed the issue of gender disparities, which is especially prevalent in ownership of assets, like mobile phones, and access to markets. In a study looking at market prices, her research found that women sell for low prices in local markets, while men sell for higher prices to large-scale processors. They also found that sharing information with smallholder farmers can close some of these gaps, but these interventions are limited because of access to mobile and internet services. Providers need to carefully customized platforms to be accessible on all makes and models of mobile devices, use local languages, and in particular reach women. Less than 30% of the women in areas where they work have access to a mobile phone. Most households have a phone, but it is with the man, and he may not share the information with the woman, who is likely the primary farmer.

Ajay Vir Jakhar reflected on why smallholder farmers are not getting good prices, saying subsidies overseas, in the West, drive down food prices and make imports compete on equal footing with local products. Also, while Jakhar supports food value chains and trade, he cautioned about how its effects on 4 segments of the food value chain, (i) agriculture inputs, (ii) commodity traders, (iii) brands, and (iv) retail or e-commerce. In each of these segments, 4 or 5 corporations control 60-70% of global trade. He suggested better regulation of monopolies in the value chain, especially in emerging economies. Jakhar also shared the saying that “When one farmer works hard, he becomes rich; when every farmer works hard, everyone becomes poor.” He warned he is actually not optimistic; we have a constrained world, and not enough focus on overcoming constraints.

Kofi Takyi Asante responded to a comment from the floor about why Ghanaian palm oil productivity is rising, saying he thinks it is because of improved seedlings. Also, some farmers are using different varieties with a higher fat content, which is not purchased by the big processors, and this is a constraint for farmers. There is also inadequate access to extension services partly due to a government hiring freeze. Currently there is a program to employ young graduates, which is helping. Other programs to professionalize a cadre of workers have faced challenges. There is also the issue of corruption and smuggling which prevents subsidized inputs from reaching the poorest farmers, and the supply chain and transport also causes issues with delivering inputs in a timely manner for application on fields. There is also a call for higher tariffs on imports, which may have a stronger effect to support local productivity than subsidizing inputs.

Audax Rukonge called for greater support to researchers and prioritization of a few key areas to invest, especially to benefit women and youth. He recommended mobilizing the private sector, government, researchers, and other actors to have a synergistic effect and make concrete progress on these key areas. Rukonge also suggested looking at what is in-demand in international trade, and what locals produce, and combining this with research and development to scale up local production for global trade. He also noted that women, young people, and small-holder farmers are not homogeneous groups, and we need to take note of their different characteristics and tailor programs for them. For example, among youth, many are poor and uneducated, while many others are well educated and have access to financing. We cannot treat them as being the same. 

Hannigton Odame said the key issue he sees is having a comprehensive policy that addresses different climates and production systems, cash crops and subsistence crops, etc. There is not a comprehensive approach to agricultural policy, leading to ineffective implementation. Another key need is good, timely data which is severely lacking. There is not only a role for government and the private sector here, but also for academia and civil society to advocate for science-based policy and to ensure good information reaches policymakers. Finally, there are many technologies and innovations, but the way we manage knowledge to respond to smallholder farmers’ challenges is lacking, and there is room for improvement.

Steve Wiggins noted that there is a lot to learn from the example of East Asia. Small, incremental improvements over decades since the 1960s and 1970s has led to a transformation, dramatically reducing hunger and poverty, and raising productivity. Some studies show remarkable progress in rural Tanzania since the early 1990s, spurred by government building roads that has prompted traders and farmers to invest in agriculture. Wiggins predicted that in the next 15 years Tanzania may well be seen as equally as successful as Vietnam, China, and other Asian success stories.

In the final round of interventions, speakers were asked to contribute one key message to the fall summits.

Theresa Ampadu-Boakye highlighted the opportunities offered by digital technology, which can be transformative, saying we need technology that empowers farmers to make better decisions.

Ajay Vir Jakhar said we should invest in human resources over infrastructure (i.e. trainers, keeping their information and skills up to date, offering more extension services, etc.)

Kofi Takyi Asante recommended improving the material conditions for farmers, such as roads, integration to markets, etc. Once these conditions improve, there is strong evidence that farmers can rapidly respond to incentives.

Audax Rukonge said interventions should be based on evidence, and interventions need to be tailored to specific groups (women, youth, etc.). He also recommended effective monitoring and evaluation of success to take good projects to scale.

Hannigton Odame recommended creating more spaces for stakeholders to co-create programs to enhance meaningful change in policy, practice, and discourse.

Throughout the course of the event there was a rich dialogue among participants via the chat feature. This included debate around local vs. international experiences, as well as which commodities (palm oil, cereals) should be produced for local vs. international markets, and how prices can vary. Another topic that attracted many comments was the local production of vegetables, in areas where there is access to water, as an important contribution to nutritious diets at the local level. This issue is not getting a lot of attention, often because a greater priority is the need to seek non-farm income. Some participants suggest countries may need to put up some barriers (ex. tariffs) to protect local farmers. Finally, there were lots of comments on access to land, inputs, and other expensive assets being a huge barrier to young people who want to get into farming.