Smallholder farmers are pivotal to transforming global food systems, experts tell UN Summit

By Joseph Opoku Gakpo

September 23, 2021

Proposals to end world hunger that will emerge from today’s historic United Nations Food Systems Summit will only succeed if smallholder farmers are made the central pivot, some African experts say.

They issued a warning that the world will not succeed in meeting Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) one to end global hunger by 2030 if smallholder farmers are not prioritized.

“Most African countries depend on smallholder farmers to produce food for the populations,” former Ethiopia Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn noted. “When the smallholder farmers succeed, economies thrive. Supporting smallholder farmers is not an option for government leaders, it is a necessity for the transformation of our food systems.”

Dessalegn, who also chairs the Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), added: “And to be very clear, we must re-double our efforts to transform the productivity of our smallholder farmers in an eco-friendly and sustainable manner. There is an urgent need to help smallholder farmers cope with existing challenges and adapt to future climatic conditions.”

Dessalegn made his comments at a side event to discuss the continent’s strategies to help meet the 2030 SDGs ahead of today’s Food Systems Summit, which is charged with launching bold, new actions to help deliver progress on all 17 SDGs, each of which relies to some degree on the goal of achieving zero hunger. The meeting was deemed necessary because the world currently is not on track to meet the zero-hunger target and other SDGs by 2030 unless drastic actions are taken. Today’s summit will synthesize discussions that have taken place over the last 18 months during independent dialogues organized by governments, NGOs and private sector organizations.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the vulnerabilities of Africa’s food systems, Dessalegn said, hence the need to re-think the continent’s strategy in dealing with food insecurity. Africa accounts for an estimated 256 million of the world’s 795 million people suffering from hunger.

Dessalegn warned that the situation will only get worse if today’s meeting doesn’t come up with extra-ordinary plans.

“Climate change poses challenges to significant smallholder farmers and threatens to undermine global progress toward poverty alleviation, food and nutrition security and sustainable development,” he said.

Helping smallholder farmers adaptat to climate change will require a combination of policy, technical expertise and research solutions, he said. “We must develop adaptation programs that support smallholder farmers.”

He insisted that “urgent change is needed if we are to attain the ambitious goal of ending hunger and malnutrition” and noted that African governments must pursue tailored solutions to change how the continent produces, processes and consumes foods and manages food waste.

Who are smallholder farmers?

Smallholder farmers typically grow crops on less than five acres of farmlands. Although they constitute more than 70 percent of all farmers globally and produce 80 percent of the world’s foods, they use only about 12 percent of arable land. This speaks to how smallholder farmers are usually powerless in the overall agricultural value chain compared to commercial producers and other stakeholders.

Dr. Jemimah Njuki, Africa director of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), observed that the hungriest people in the world are smallholder farmers in rural areas. She called for a change.

“Our food systems are hinged on smallholder farmers that without them at the center, we really don’t have functional food systems,” she said. “Policies must have a very smallholder-centric view… Innovations like climate-smart agriculture must reach and work for smallholder farmers… They must be accompanied by other policies including extension services and markets for smallholder farmers.”

Rodger Voorhies, president of the Global Growth and Opportunity Division at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, also spoke at the side event. He expressed optimism that the UN summit will help African smallholder farmers secure support for climate adaptation objectives.

“Small-scale producers are the foundations of Africa’s food system, so it makes sense that an inclusive agricultural transformation, led by smallholders, should be the central element of the broader food system transformation,” he said.

Dr. Godfrey Bahiigwa, the African Union Commission’s director of agriculture and rural development, noted that the continent desires to meet its future food needs by doubling production on a sustainable basis. He encouraged the adoption of technologies that lead to high yields for crops and animals through research. He also called for the development of climate-smart technologies while embracing the benefits of biotechnology.

Africa wants to rely less on food imports and increase food production on the continent to feed itself, while at the same time saving resources and creating jobs, Bahiigwa said.  “But we want to increase food production while protecting the environment for current and future generations,” he said.

Evangelista Chekera, chief executive of Passion Poultry in Zimbabwe, said young people should be supported as they venture into entrepreneurship within the various sectors of the agricultural value chain to ensure food systems are transformed.

“Young agri-preneurs need more grants for us to do proper research and development in terms of the products and services we are coming up with,” Chekera said. “There is also a need for governments to create local hubs where young innovators can develop their products and solutions.”

Image: Tanzanian smallholder farmer Rehema Maganga inspects a diseased cassava plant. Photo: Alliance for Science