Africa’s smallholder farmers need support to build resiliency and sustainability

By Reuben Quainoo

May 4, 2020

The world is at a standstill due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the smallholder farmers who feed millions of Africans are not given much attention and support.

Smallholder farming is a major source of food production and income for the global rural population in general, especially in the developing world. As many as 2.1-2.5 billion people are involved in farming smallholdings and there are perhaps 500 million smallholdings in the world, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization.

The good news is there’s loads of potential to unlock. Generally, smallholdings are a family affair, run in a rudimentary and inefficient way. A small improvement to the productivity of 100 farms via training or giving access to better fertilizers can have a huge impact.

The bad news is it’s tough. The large majority of smallholder farmers operate on their lonesome on lands that are isolated and cut off from towns and cities. They are really hard to reach, let alone help and engage in conversation.

More and more firms are getting it right by introducing new finance mechanisms to help farmers access loans and plan for their future. Farmer training is working wonders at boosting productivity, too.

But there is still so much that can be done. So far, too many companies have ignored this increasingly vulnerable tentacle of their supply chains. Maybe 2020 will be the year that smallholder farmers get the attention and support they need to build resilience and sustainability for the long term.

If nothing else, the coronavirus pandemic has taught us how to appreciate the little things we took for granted — having a social life, shaking hands, hugging, etc., which in our culture shows care and is a reflection of our affection.

I must quickly appreciate how countries, both large and small, are putting in place measures to cushion their citizens against further damage.

To date, some 3.6 million people worldwide have been infected with over 249,000 deaths. There is no vaccine or drug for it yet. It is unequivocal that the world has not seen anything this huge in a long time, with many on lockdown and living in fear.

An estimated 500 million smallholder farming families (representing more than 2 billion people) rely to varying degrees on agricultural production for their livelihoods. As the largest global segment by livelihood of those living on less than US$2 a day, smallholder families are central to global financial inclusion efforts. But reaching smallholders with financial services is challenging in Ghana, where I live, as well as elsewhere in Africa.

Agriculture accounts for about 20 percent of Ghana’s GDP and employs 44.7 percent of the working population. But as is true in other parts of Africa, the sector faces difficulty because of its strong dependence on raw materials prices and vulnerability to climatic vagaries.

Inadequate finances, climate change, poor pricing and marketing incentives, inadequate agricultural extension agents, pests, plant diseases and a lack of access to fertilizers are all contributing to the declining fortunes of the sector.

In the Northern and Upper West regions of Ghana, for instance, more than 70 percent of the economically active population is engaged in agriculture activities. Small scale farmers in Ghana’s poor rural areas have limited access to the assets that would facilitate a shift from low-productivity subsistence farming to modern, commercial agriculture. Major constraints to their livelihoods include lack of infrastructure and insufficient access to equipment, such as agricultural inputs and technology, and facilities for storing, processing and marketing products.

The way forward

Firstly, farmers should be motivated and supported to increase their production. The bulk of the food supply in Ghana and elsewhere in Africa comes from smallholder farmers; however, existing policies that support their productivity have historically undermined their performance. Farmers who show evidence of being in production should be able to access emergency funds without repayment conditions.

Secondly, agriculture inputs should immediately be classified as essential materials and steps taken to ensure their uninterrupted supply to various depots. Similarly, food transport and distribution should be considered as a national security issue and thus a protected activity under the restrictive laws.

Thirdly, the price control system should be instituted with immediate effect. We are not in ordinary times where market forces of demand and supply are allowed to determine the price of food.

Mindful that Africa is yet to hit the plateau of the coronavirus infection curve, governments must prepare for the worst-case scenario and be ready to activate organized emergency food deliveries. This calls for efficient collaboration between government entities and transport operators on one hand and local and community organizations and farmers on the other to ensure enough buffer stock.

Is this going to be the era that will cause Ghana and Africans to take the smallholder farm sector seriously, to ensure that the appropriate structures are put in place for its recognition and full integration into the wider economy? We keep our fingers crossed.

Reuben Quainoo is an agriculturist, prize-winning journalist and 2018 Alliance for Science Global Leadership Fellow.