Whether for profit or social motives - and often both - an increasing number of investors are targeting opportunities in African agriculture. At the same time innovative approaches for deploying aid to support farming businesses linked to smallholders are emerging. This blog provides a snapshot of who is doing what, where and how.

3 June 2011

Is Small always Beautiful in agriculture?

Oxfam’s report Growing a Better Future brings urgency to the debate about food security and poverty. It shows how a billion people worldwide are going hungry, more than at any time in human history.

With climate change, population growth and rising food prices the situation is likely to get worse. Against this background of human misery, the report points out the inequity in a global food system which contributes to unprecedented levels of obesity and food waste in wealthy countries.

So what is to be done? Oxfam calls for massive, government-led investment in smallholder farming and supporting infrastructure. While warning against large-scale “land grabs”, Oxfam also recognises the private sector has a role to play in linking smallholder farmers to international markets.

The report is an important call to action backed up by sound analysis. But one section of the report does not ring true: the claim that smallholder farming is typically more efficient than large-scale farming. Big is not beautiful in agriculture, the authors say. “Surveys often find that, when the focus is shifted from yields to total productivity, small farms are more efficient”.

Is that correct? The research is not clear cut. Professor Paul Collier of Oxford University disputes the view in his paper African Agriculture in Fifty Years. He writes: “The evidence is far more mixed than the exclusive emphasis upon the smallholder approach would lead us to believe. Indeed, much of the focus on smallholders may actually hinder large scale poverty reduction.”

In AgDevCo’s experience smallholder farmers in Africa with access to modern inputs can achieve yields equal or greater to commercial farms, for certain types of crops. But the cost of labour is usually not factored into productivity calculations, or is given a very low value. Furthermore for some crops, such as barley and wheat, mechanisation is essential if African farmers are to become internationally competitive.

We need to move beyond the simplistic debate about small versus large-scale farming. Both can and should co-exist in ways that benefit local communities. The agricultural growth corridors in Tanzania and Mozambique, for example, are an attempt to promote balanced and sustainable agricultural development.That message may have less public appeal than the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's new campaign Smallholder Farmers are the Answer, but it is closer to reality.

As E.F. Schumacher, author of Small is Beautiful, and my grandfather, said what matters is finding the appropriate scale when tackling a given problem. Writing in the early 1970s he observed “an almost universal idolatry of giantism” and wished to correct the balance. He continued: “If there were a prevailing idolatry of smallness, irrespective of subject or purpose, one would have to try and exercise influence in the opposite direction.”

The need to invest in smallholder farming is indeed urgent. It requires smart combinations of government spending, overseas aid and private investment. But let’s not to dismiss the role of larger farming enterprises – where appropriate – in addressing global food security. With the stakes so high we should be careful to avoid an idolatory of smallness.