Improved natural resource management for livelihoods, food security and the natural environment

African Agriculture: Does farm size really matter?

Addressing Africa’s real agricultural issues.

Among the issues exercising the minds of those concerned with the future welfare of the African continent and its people is the issue of farm size.  Many debate if land should be in the hands of larger scale commercial farmers or a multitude of smallholders. But, the hundreds of millions of small-scale farmers of Japan, China, and elsewhere in Asia show us that farm size is not the key determinant of productivity. These farmers obtain levels of productivity per unit area of land which are equal to or greater than those achieved by large-scale farmers anywhere in the world.

Rwanda
A climbing bean farmer tends to her young crop in Nyagatare, in Rwanda’s Eastern Province.     Photo: Neil Palmer/CIAT

The key to their success is not the size of their land holding but their access to intensifying farm inputs and particularly to inorganic fertiliser. This in its turn is largely dependent upon the availability of subsidies.  In the case of East Asia, subsidies are of a similar level to those provided to European farmers.  The comparatively low yields of staple food crops achieved on small-scale farms in Sub-Saharan Africa are not a direct result of the size of their farms but rather that they only have access to 5% of the level of fertiliser per unit area of land as compared to their East Asian counterparts.

The lack of widespread programmes to assist small-scale African farmers to gain access to adequate fertiliser and good seeds is largely due to the absence of a vibrant non-agricultural sector in many countries, which would provide the resources to help farmers obtain the inputs they need. If a nation is unable to afford access to adequate plant nutrients to meet the needs of its whole crop area, then it matters little as to whether that area is divided into large sections or small, the hungry crops will provide equally low levels of national production.

The argument in favour of dispossessing smallholders of their land and creating larger units in Africa has often been based on the performance of small enclaves of commercial farmers in the midst of a large body of smallholders. Too little attention is given to the fact that the subsidised benefits and access to niche markets, which a small number enjoy, could not be extended to the whole area of the country involved. On another continent, the example of Brazil is often cited to exemplify the superiority of large farms over small. There tends to be less focus on the $100 billion of subsidised credit, which is an essential feature of that success.

For the time being, however, the crucial issue for increasing farm productivity in Africa is how to enable farmers to obtain enough fertiliser to replace the nutrients being lost every day, and how to give them access to the seeds of crops which can make the best use of those nutrients. Unpopular as it may be for some people, the evidence from the rest of the world is that this means subsidies in one form or another.

Two recent examples of where subsidies on farm inputs have made a significant impact on both productivity and welfare are provided by Ghana and Malawi. Ghana is considered the first African nation to have halved the number of people living in extreme poverty. This is in part attributed to the greatly increased fertiliser use by small farmers in recent years stimulated by a 49% subsidy and the establishment of 4,000 fertiliser retail outlets.

In Malawi the under-five child death rate has dropped from 222 to 92 helped by the major growth in staple food production.  Such growth was the result of the large fertiliser and seed subsidy programme of the past seven years which was concentrated entirely on small-scale farmers. Large-scale or small is not really a crucial issue for the future of African agriculture but rather access by farmers to intensifying inputs, particularly fertiliser, irrespective of the size of their farms.

 

About the Author:

Stephen Carr has spent sixty years working with small-scale farmers in a range of African countries, both at the village level and in senior positions with African governments and internationally.  He currently lives in Southern Malawi.

 

29 Responses to African Agriculture: Does farm size really matter?

  1. Jeremy Cherfas says:

    Very interesting perspective; I do wonder, though, about the downstream effects of leaching. there is some evidence of eutrophication in Ghana. Will those providing the subsidies also pay to restore ecological functions?

  2. Doug Merrey says:

    Excellent argument. The issues you do not discuss however, are that even with intensification and higher productivity per unit of land or water [even in terms of financial profit],.many people have holdings that are far too small to make a living; and the return per unit of labor which is most crucial for achieving prosperity is usually low. Micro holdings are promoted by many governents and donors on irrigation schemes to achieve “equity”–maximizing the number of people who receive a piece of land — but this actually perpetuates poverty, albeit at a slightly higher level of nutrition.

  3. Water Land Ecosystems says:

    From Richard Chowning on LinkedIN group E-agriculture•
    Thanks for the article Michael. The article raises some interesting issues, however it main premise seems to be ” the crucial issue for increasing farm productivity in Africa is how to enable farmers to obtain enough fertiliser to replace the nutrients being lost every day, and how to give them access to the seeds of crops which can make the best use of those nutrients.”
    I would think that one of the major contributors to the lack of productivity is return for their labor. Crop prices are low, at least the portion the farmer sweating in the field receives. They have been taken advantage of by buyers and governments.
    My experience is that African farmers are quite ingenious and innovative. How they can feed, cloth and send to school a family of 5 or more off of a 2-5 acre plot of land is nothing short of heroic. If they were to receive more for what the produce, they will find and use better products. The people in the cities and the buyers who bring the produce to them, need to pay more.

  4. Water Land Ecosystems says:

    From Linkedin group
    M Saadullah, Ph.D • The major underlying philosophy in the traditional integrated production system is the application of practical knowledge which has proven to be sustainable under uncertain and fluctuating economic conditions. This systems of production are in contrast with simple single-product farming like beef, mutton, milk, grain etc. which are the characteristics in developed countries. Each system is described in terms of land holding, farm family labour, resources, types of animals owned and what they produce. In this production system the major objectives are to increase household food , income security, employment opportunity and life style through integrating the available resources in the farming environment by evolving solutions to priority problems of farmers in a particular location and testing promising results more widely

  5. Water Land Ecosystems says:

    From Linkedin group
    Thomas Kaudia • Large or small? The answer in my opinion is definitely large. Large farm holdings have a number of advantages such as enabling mechanization, enhanced yield, creation of sustainable jobs and allowing diversification among others. Some families in Africa have such small farms that family members can only get their daily income by working for their neighbors who have large farms. In order to embrace the concept of large farms, there is need to promote urban development to encourage rural urban migration so that few people remaining in the rural will have large farms to practice commercial agriculture.

  6. I think farm size matters. I tend to agree more with Saadullah than Kuadia. Its on record that greater % of the African population depends on subsistence Agriculture for their livelihood.., this greatly tallies with concern raised in this debate “Among the issues exercising the minds of those concerned with the future welfare of the African continent and its people is the issue of farm size.”…

  7. Phil Riddell says:

    This is a common discussion but frankly I am bewildered by it! It seems always to be predicated on the assumption that it is either small farmers, or large farmers. But surely the answer is that there is both room and a need for both. Equally, I am little unsettled by the implicit typology which suggests that small is the same as poor. Examples abound in sub-Saharan Africa of small farmers thriving on truly tiny plots where they produce high value produce for local, regional and global markets. Another point that needs to be made is that large commercial farming is not necessarily by definition bad. Neither for that matter is all small farming good! Especially where unsupported by good extension, information and marketing services. With this in mind, I am also bewildered as to why all the media attention is on the “land-grabbers”. True, this may be a problem (but where by the way, are the capital flows needed to develop millions of ha allegedly grabbed? Surely there would be a ripple in the financial markets?). But what about the commercial investors looking for positive social impacts? Instead of including them (by default) among the bad guys, surely they should be talked up for risking their own wealth in the interests of social equity and environmental responsibility. Finally: i) larger production models are needed to feed the increasing numbers of non-farmers in Africa, and ii) one day so that Africa can realise its huge potential as a major contributor to global food security, with concomitant economic growth in producer countries. But for that we need Doha!

  8. Water Land Ecosystems says:

    From LInkedIn
    Krishnan Srinivasan • It is akin to asking these questions:
    1. Is a centralized air-conditioning system better than 15 room air-conditioners in a large opera hall?
    2. Is it beneficial to have a 2 meter dia pizza for a team of 15 people or to order a small pan pizza of choice to every individual?
    3. Will it be better if a lion chases and kills a giraffe for his clan or every member chasing a hare for food ?
    4.Will it be beneficial if 150 african farmers cultivate one hectare each or give 150 hectares to a corporate giant and wait for the allotted quota of grains?
    5. Will it be in the interest of people to give primary education to 150 african children or to send one to Oxford for higher education?
    Others can add more Qs.

  9. Water Land Ecosystems says:

    From Linkedin
    Arjuna Perera • Notwithstanding Krishnan Srinivasan’s valid comment, there is a relevance of farm size to the operation. Key areas of impact are
    1. Ownership structure and division of revenue/profits
    a) for sustenance of family unit
    b) for re-investment in the farm
    2. Methodology/techniques/technology of cultivation and optimization
    3. Mechanization vs labor utilization

    There are more areas that the above can be sub divided to, but broadly it is always impacted by land size/scale of farm etc.

    But I always prefer large scale operations simply because with the right hybrid approach it can be engineered to be forced to accord the best optimization.

  10. Water Land Ecosystems says:

    From Linkedin
    It is difficult to argue in favor of small scale or large commercial farm. it needs further research on a comparative analysis of the efficiency and productivity of both farming systems. But the Sub Saharan African agriculture is characterized by traditional farming and weak market linkage. So It might be better if we look for commercial farming which has potential to utilize irrigation technology and can have capacity of coping or mitigation strategy for different sources of risk
    By Mebratu Alemu

  11. Anthony Oyeogbe says:

    Stephen Carr is on point, farm size is not the determinant of crop productivity. Sustainable intensification production in Africa will largely be achieve if and only if small-holder farmers co-exists with the larger participants. At the end of the season, crop productivity will largely be determined by the farmers knowledge and accessibility to agronomic inputs vis-a-vis Indigenous Traditional Knowledge(ITK) acquired over the years and not the size of his farm.

    In recent times, intensification of cropping systems (multiple cropping) is define in temporal and spatial dimension. Thus, the aim is to increase crop production per unit area per unit time AND NOT BY INCREASING THE FARM SIZE.

    Small-scale farmers feed the nation. A typical example of this venture is the “Green Revolution” achieved in India in the 70′s not because of large farm size but rather the down-scaling of the components (High Yielding Varieties(HYV), Fertilizers and Irrigation) of Green Revolution to small-holder farmers.

  12. M Gopalakrishnan says:

    One cannot wish away the present situation obtaining in many developing as well as underdeveloped countries, particularly, Asia and Africa. Save in developed world where farming is seen to be for wealth creation for the benefit od individual few, in the other world many rural folks are actively engaged in farming despite dwindling size of the farm holdings (with division of the asset amongst family members). This is just because of lack of other alternatives! Many of them would perhaps like to quit farming, should there be an opportunity! And, this is gradually taking place. The subsidy to poor famers with small holdings (in whatever form be it be – like free energy for pumping ground water, lesser pricing of water etc, should be seen in this perspective. Encouraging them to profitably enhance their welfare by intensive farming is quite desirable, viewed in this angle. Lest, the political systems collapse, and wider unrest results. This also seeks funds to tackle! (the Maoism in a few part of rural India is a case before us; the necessity for the Central Government to enhance allocation of funds for internal security and stabilty, to cope up with the situation is well known for Indians).
    I like the way Krishnan Srinivasan has anologised! Let us not under estimate the collective net result of the small farm holders’ contribution to their respective countries food baskets.
    Let us aspire that both big and small co exist harmoniously, as situation demands.Small is beautiful but neverthess, big is bountiful. One has accept these options, depending on local compulsions.
    A bigger threat of the future would be that more & more, some countries would face serious problems in respect of land, as it becomes scarcer (quality soils and land for agriculture? ). Profitable Agriculture asks for both land and water.
    And for all those who continue to engage in irrigated agriculture, small or big, ensuring food security of the countries conerned,intensification of irrigation and intensive agriculture are but necessities.
    Keeping on board the broader objective of protecting eco system, a challenge before all of us nevertheless, sensible actions should be encouraged .
    Could it be that the steady and gradual adaptation of species in the ecosystem to the ever changing environ play a (+ve) role in the dynamics?

  13. Water Land Ecosystems says:

    Comment from Linkedin
    Africa is said to had more than 60% of the world uncultivated lands & holds the key to feeding the world’s 9bn population by 2050. The reasons given by an experts at the Berlin summit contradicts what kaudia has said in his 1st sentence. Readers may wish to cross check through the following links; ( http://www.farmersguardian.com/home/rural-life/african-farmers-can-rise-to-food-security-challenge/52901.article )
    2) I’m of the view that African Governments, development partners and other major stack holders to invest in Agriculture in all it’s ramifications with emphasis on improving Agricultural research infrastructures & capacity developments…..There most be a deliberate policy(ies) by African Governments to look into the urban-rural migration.
    3) How many planned….not to talk of well planned cities do we have in Africa? The ratio of these cities to un-utilized but cultivable land suggest a lot….
    By Dr. Bukar Usman

  14. Seth Hazelquip says:

    Subsistence farming on small farms is poverty. Thomas is right, farm sizes have shrunk from subdivision as rural populations have grown. It is a myth that there is a lot of unused available farmland out there. In fact there is not. Farmland in Africa is increasingly over-cultivated, leading to nutrient depletion and erosion. This is caused by too many people trying to live from farming and putting destructive pressure on the land.

    It is necessary to get large numbers of people out of villages and away from the land into other livelihoods besides farming. Only this can take pressure off the land. A smaller number of farmers working larger farms can produce the benefits Thomas mentions – adoption of technology, mixing of livestock and cropping, higher productivity, more food, sustainable use of the land.

    Migrating people from rural to urban areas need new skills and jobs, but this, along with increasing the technology and productivity on larger farms, can supply African countries with the food they need as well as modernise the economy.

  15. Professor Dr.M.Saadullah says:

    I like all these discussions on small scale farms and participation of women

  16. Water Land Ecosystems says:

    From Linked IN;
    It matters, but only totalitarian governments will try to force the size of farms. U.S. experience suggests that, in general, both very large and very small farms are inefficient. The U.S.S.R. did an excellent job of proving that forced large size is disastrous. I have been on one still-operating, former U.S.S.R. collective farm. It was extremely inefficient, but the people had become accustomed to the conditions.
    By Ralph Kurtzman

  17. Water Land Ecosystems says:

    From Linkedin
    another dimension to this discussion is what is produced and for whom. Most small scale farmers sell a portion of their yields for income generation – however their production decisions are not informed by market opportunities, resulting in all of them producing tomatoes/mangoes/onions or whatever all together – thereby causing a fall in prices at their market level – and therefore reducing the returns on their investment – this situation is further exacerbated by poor infrastructure, and an inability to access markets efficiently. In the case of large scale productions, the production decisions are based on market knowledge, investment in marketing, and infrastructure. So, to attribute higher returns from larger scale productions to just the scale of production, is in my mind a little short sighted. Theoretically, scale can also be built by encouraging the farmers to produce in groups – for a targeted market and with a targeted product – there are some experiments that are ongoing with this approach, which then may enable in identifying the collection of attributes required to enable efficient and competitive production
    By Nishu Aggarwal

  18. Water Land Ecosystems says:

    From Linked in
    Hi Folks. There are inexhaustible arguments for and against small and large farm establishments in Africa. Your divide is strictly from your window of observation. Just as big is not always good so can be said of small. To make a choice is a complex process that should involve input concerns beginning from land tenure and expanse available, available technology and technical support, to the target market, maximising the opportunities and strength, and minimising the weaknesses and threats, to be brief. Bottom line is this. Either small or big, start producing. It is only production, processing and storage that can ensure food security, not importation.
    By Prof Ajisegiri

  19. Water Land Ecosystems says:

    From Linked in
    The long term future of African agriculture would seem to me to lie more with medium scale farms [ 10 -300 hectares] with some contribution from both large scale farms and small scale farmers who will largely be part time farmers – deriving only a small % of their livelihood from farming. The demographic trends in most countries over the next three decades do indicate not a very prominent future for small scale farming in SSA – i.e. increasing urbanization [with most countries going to have more than 50% of their population living in urban areas by 2025] and ageing rural population [median age of farmers is increasing to 50 - 60 years as it is the young and educated who are migrating].

    I define small scale farmers as those cultivating less than 5 hectares relying mostly on family labor and on what HE President Kikwete of Tanzania quite rightly defines as the BC [Before Christ] technology – hand-tool and animal powered technologies for their field operations.

    Indeed, if you go to many villages now most of the young are busy hawking goods be it roasted cashew, meat etc or selling second hand clothes, mobile telephone air time or soft drinks rather than farming. A rapid appraisal of the cashew value chains in Tanzania shows that there are more young people employed formally and informally in roasting, packaging and hawking cashew kernels than those who are actually managing the cashew farms/trees.

    Yes, the small scale farmers will be there in 30-40 years time but their contribution to the national AgGDP [as farmers] is likely to be small. The political imperative will be such that Governments in SSA will be forced to look for different types of farmers to meet the food needs of their populations [both urban and rural]. Further, the experience of Zimbabwe & Kenya with large scale farming dominated by non-indigenous farmers does point to the difficulties of politically sustaining such a farming cadre. The medium scale farmers are therefore likely to emerge as the key group in agriculture in SSA over the next four decades. We are already seeing signs of this in some parts of SSA e.g. Zambia, Western Kenya; Southern Tanzania etc.

    Certainly those of us who grew up in rural Africa in the 1950s, 60s and 70s do clearly see the difference between the rural areas then and what is there now post 2000. Unfortunately the current development models are still based on rural Africa as it was in the 1960s.
    By geoffrey mrema

    • Water Land Ecosystems says:

      From Linked in:
      I would agree with Geoffrey. In a study I did on produce supply chains into supermarkets in Kenya, the main response came from medium-sized farms, who sort of emerged as a new group in between the smallholders in the traditional channel and the often large farms in the export channel. These medium sized farms can also provide the lead farmer function to link in a number of smaller, but commercially oriented farmers. The reference is: http://ideas.repec.org/a/eee/wdevel/v37y2009i11p1802-1811.html
      By David Neven

  20. Water Land Ecosystems says:

    From Linked in:
    thank you for sharing this article. Personally i find it very informative as it covers/touches some of the most pressing needs and issues for small scale farmers. Though productivity is not only archived by subsidy on inputs (seeds and fertilizer), these factors play a great role and do contribute to production to a large extent.

    Mr Kamau has great observations here, it is true there is more than just subsidy but we must appreciate the facts we have in this article. If our farmers can have easy access to these inputs and get high yield regardless of their farm sizes, then other factors e.g market and transport can come in the picture. Reason being that if they produce mainly for subsistence, and manage to have whole lot of surplus,then they look for markets for this sur

  21. Alberto Giani says:

    i agree that both small and large farms are needed, in different context and environment, one or the other can give better performance, contribute to food security and create more jobs. I’m a bit surprise though that there has been no comment about the fact that this article suggests that the only thing small-holder farmers in Africa miss are subsidies for fertilizers. Obviously the whole issue is more complex, and is related to access to food, infrastructures, market, education, water etc. But also fertilizers are not the solution. Exactly because they are not available and, as somebody mentioned can bring to pollution and eutrophication, use of fertilizers should be minimized and other methodologies (conservation Agr., Organic Agr., Agroforestry etc) should be adopted to make the production sustainable in the time to come. Low external input agriculture (LEIA) should be definitely adopted in SSA more then High External Input Agriculture (HEIA).
    And one last comment, to “Water Land Ecosystems”: policies to encourage urban migration!? Urban migration and abandonment of the countryside is one of the problem of the present that will increase in the future. Many of the people that migrates from the countryside to cities in SSA will become part of these enormous number of people populating slums, with little access to what the city offers to the wealthy inhabitants. And there will be increasingly more people living far from where the food is produced. In the meanwhile the land get abandoned and jobs are lost. All this is results of the lack of policies that encourage people to stay in the countryside and have a respectable and fair job, producing food for his family and for the community, instead of migrating to town, to leave in a slum and become beggars or unemployed workers.

  22. AW. Palgunadi says:

    The Rainfed agriculture area (like in your discussed area (Africa)) is not comparable to the irrigated agriculture area in Asia particularly in a rice field.
    An irrigated rice field must be classified into Small-Medium or Large scale because it will need a different complicity of water management and its agricultural practices. While classification of Large or small scale for a rainfed area with other rice crops,will much depend on agriculture management, particularly on the requirement or availability of machine or man ppower

  23. Byamukama Biryahwaho says:

    Very interesting debate! What Africa needs are Smart Farmers. I am a Farmer my self and would like to share my experience as a small farmer but with potential to grow. Smart small farmers will produce healthy food for their household needs on small pieces of land so that they are able to afford all the food requirements especially for fruits, vegetables and small animal protein as well as get some small cash income. This I have achieved on less than half an acre of land in my town home just outside Kampala city. Land productivity is maintained by manure from my small poutry unit and piggerly. With this approach I only need to increase my level of investment to make enough money – over and above what I earn from my full time Job in order to resign and concentrate on producing food for my family and for the nation! I have a number of colleagues that are farming at such scales. From this experience and using savings from our full time Jobs, a number have acquired land in the vicinity of the city in the range of 1-5 acres. This is where medium/or large scale production and farming as a bussiness is happening and most of the egg and chicken supply for Uganda is coming from. Some is infact exported to Southern Sudan and DRC! A number of people have resigned thier full time Jobs or retired into this kind of farming. So the issue is not the size but the vision of the farmer, our perception about farming and availability of affordable financing. One may urgue that this model is not for an ordinary African in the village; but with more people getting exposed to education, the trend should be that instead of spending all my working like earning enough money for food, housing, transport and if possible my childrens education, one would rather invest in intensive/market oriented agriculture on a 1 acre piece of land. Therefore the future of food production/security in Africa lies in the hands of educated, committed farmers who see farming first as a Job, a bussiness and then an investment and not large scale farms. Besides, in some countries the large scale farms may not be attainable due to the land ownership arrangements.

    • Smart thoughts and spot on, considering the growing population pressure on land – hence, the dwindling land sizes for large cultivation! But importantly, job creation is in agriculture for SSA and it is about investing in the abundant resources available – human and the land. Smart farming is the way to go. It can be small and/or large. It can be medium too.

  24. Water Land Ecosystems says:

    From Linked in
    I highly urge the readers of this thread to look into the work of Miguel Altieri, who has pioneered agro-ecology and has been involved in the growing and highly successful campesino movement in Latin America. This approach directly approaches the problem of farmer literacy and knowledge-base, market development, seed-company abuse, and soil health. He’s been at it for over 40 years and has shown great successes. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2yFvD8wuLmU
    By Richard Freeman

  25. Abby Waldorf says:

    Senior scientists from the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems have shared reactions to Carr’s blog post. Read more here:

    Can ‘smart’ subsidies save African agriculture?
    http://wle.cgiar.org/blogs/2013/02/15/can-smart-subsidies-save-african-agriculture/

  26. Janet says:

    I am a young graduate, interested in agriculture and agribusiness at large. However, I cannot afford huge tracts of land so I will have to do with a small piece of land. Of late, I was wondering how ‘small’ is small, but after reading Byamukama Biryahwaho’s response, I feel I can do with whatever I will get, then expand my small farm when I’m ready.

  27. Martin Whiteside says:

    It is not size – it is quality that matters

    Stephen Carr makes many valid points. The time may be right to do it different.

    For the last twenty years, support to African agriculture has been more sticking plaster than strategic (despite some honourable exceptions). Public agricultural extension services have been run down and ‘subsidy’ has become a dirty word – despite continued subsidy in the rich world. The proportion of aid money going to agriculture plummeted in the 1980s. This started to change at the end of the last decade, with fears of food shortage and food price hikes sparking, often urban based, challenges to governments across the poor world. The World Bank has admitted that it and the IMF made mistakes in the implementation of the structural adjustment programmes that led to the running down of services like agricultural extension.

    At the same time, the realisation that agriculture is a major emitter of carbon di-oxide, and particularly the massive carbon emissions (and reduced biodiversity) on conversion of forest and grassland to poorly managed cropland, also concentrated a few people’s minds. Some money has started to flow for both biodiversity conservation and to reduce carbon emissions, but often still within a sticking plaster mind-set.

    To change our mind-set, it is worth thinking about the potential multiple benefits of creating and maintaining a vibrant rural farming economy in poor countries, benefits which are potentially stronger than those for the rich world.

    The numbers of beneficiaries from a vibrant rural economy are higher in poorer countries, as a high proportion of the population live in rural areas. They are often disproportionately the poorest and are mostly small farmers or agricultural labourers. Even as the percentage of the population engaged in agriculture declines with development and urbanisation, it is almost certainly better for a vibrant farming sector to offer a future for young people as well as to be a positive springboard from which young people move into the urban and service economy. This is preferable to a negative flight from rural areas forced by hunger and desperation, leaving behind the old and even more desperate.

    A diverse, productive and resilient local farming sector contributes to national and international food security. In tomorrow’s world more food will be needed. Both urban and rural households benefit from affordable and stable food prices, indeed many farming families are actually net-purchasers of food. Preventing famine is certainly much better in human terms and probably also cheaper in pure cash terms than paying for recurring emergency relief and rehabilitation.

    Sustainably farmed and managed rural areas are essential for the preservation of urban water supplies, prevention of flooding and maintaining the ability of soils to produce in the future. Maintaining a balance between farmed and biodiverse wilderness areas is also important in many countries to attract tourists and benefit the national economy.

    A relatively newly recognised benefit is the avoided carbon cost of reducing soil degradation and continued expansion of ploughing into forest and grassland. Fertile, organic matter rich soil locks away carbon. Producing more, sustainably, on a smaller area creates the possibility of setting aside more land as forest and grassland.

    Many of these benefits go to the wider society, including urban areas and rich countries (especially in relation to climate change mitigation). Therefore we shouldn’t talk about ‘subsidising’ African agriculture, but rather about paying African farmers for the benefits that good farming and rural management can bring to the wider world community.

    How does this help change our mind-set?

    How would we design support to African agriculture if we knew we had significant, consistent funds to be able to pay African farmers for their contribution to a healthy planet and a healthy wider economy over the next 20, 30 or 40 years? What would be possible? Would the likely benefits outweigh the costs of continuing with our sticking plaster?

    A modal shift is possible, perhaps for the first time, because of the availability of significant climate change funds that are due to flow from rich industrialised carbon polluting countries to those with historically low carbon pollution under legally binding international agreements that are already signed. Will the money be used to buy ever increasing amounts of sticking plaster or have we got the vision to do something very different?

    The potential amounts of money are very significant. The Copenhagen Accord commits developed countries to the goal of sending $100 billion per year to developing countries in assistance for climate change mitigation and climate change adaptation through 2020 . If ten per cent of this went to African farmers this would be around $800 per farming household per year, which could provide a powerful incentive to change.

    We know there are ways of farming that drastically reduce erosion, keep more carbon in the soil and are more resilient to unpredictable weather. ‘Climate-Smart’ agricultural techniques include reduced tillage, better management of soil fertility, combining trees with crops, more rotation, more use of nitrogen fixing crops, biochar, anti-erosion measures, reducing burning and managing grazing better . The details vary from place to place, but increasingly farmers and scientists know what needs to be done, but lack the incentive or the means to do it.
    Farmers need stable, predictable stable incentives to be able to invest in changed practices. Carbon finance could help to provide the incentive and the means to do this. Farmer associations can play a role in organising farmers to practice climate-smart farming. Remote sensing with satellites can audit farmer level compliance. Recent advances in cash payment systems through mobile telephony (e.g. Mpesa in Kenya) and aid agency experience in cash transfer programmes, mean that we now know how to transfer money to reach poor farmers, and especially rural women, efficiently and at reasonable cost. This means we can invest in farmers to do the things that are good for their family, good for their country and good for the world. In other words we can create a win-win-win outcome.

    The time might just be right.

    Martin Whiteside is a freelance agricultural and environmental consultant with many years experience in Africa and Asia

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