Africa’s small farm sector is failing to lift millions out of poverty and policy makers are frustrated. So frustrated that they are urging the consolidation of smallholdings into larger commercial farms. The objective of such thinking is to increase the productivity of the land and improve the welfare of the rural population. Far less thought appears to be given to millions of rural families that would be dispossessed of their land to make way for larger mechanised commercial units.
What can we learn from 18th Century Britain?
In the late 18th century, when thousands of English smallholder tenants were swept off their land to make way for larger commercial farms, they finished up in the slums of the newly industrialising towns. Living conditions were dreadful, but the women and children found regular work in the spinning and weaving mills, which sprang up across the country. Despite harsh working conditions and low wages, families were gaining a regular income; they were producing the wealth to fuel the industrial revolution. Within a generation this had grown sufficiently to absorb the men into productive wage earning work as well.
In many African countries today, no such large-scale urban work opportunities exist. Driving families off their farms into urban slums is unlikely to create wage earning developments, as it did in Britain. Few investors today are attracted by large bodies of unskilled, poorly educated workers.
There is the mistaken view in some quarters that the displaced smallholders would be absorbed as labourers on the new mechanised commercial farms. However, much of the discussion of a switch to mechanised farms involves savannah areas. Since most savannahs have a single, wet agricultural season, there would be few employment opportunities for the rest of the year,
Mechanised farm operations reduce the need for labour so that, as in 18th century Britain, most of the displaced smallholders would be unable to find work on the new larger scale farms. Based on my experience as a farmer in Africa and on the experience of my friends in this situation in Malawi, if 300 ha. currently farmed by 200 families were to be converted into a single mechanised commercial farm, it is unlikely that more than 20% of original land holders would find permanent work on the new enterprise. The rest would be left without either home or work.
The economic dimension
Apart from the issues of welfare, when rural people are dispossessed of their land there is also an economic dimension. In many countries with densely populated rural areas, the most readily available productive resource is human labour and the scarcest is foreign exchange. It is not entirely clear that the best path to national and personal prosperity is to turn rural producers into unemployed consumers, while replacing their labour with imported machinery and fuel. All too seldom, the argument in favour of consolidating land holdings into larger commercial farms fails to specify the numbers of people who might be dispossessed of their land.
The rural population of Africa has grown dramatically over the past 50 years. In Uganda, for example, it grew from 6.3 million in 1950 to 25.5 million in 2010; that growth is set to continue despite increasing levels of urbanisation. If a significant part of the agricultural sector is converted from small holdings to larger commercial farms, housing and employment for millions of people, not just thousands, will need to be provided. Details of the plans to deal with this massive influx of landless and jobless farmers are all too often absent from calls to replace smallholders with commercial farms.
Few concerned with the welfare of Africa’s rural poor would argue against the urgent need for alternative non-agricultural employment. But simply driving millions of people from their land will not achieve this goal. Surely the focus of discussion should be on the strategies to draw people from their land into a more productive life, rather than planning to drive them off into unemployed urban poverty in order to hand their land over to larger scale farmers.
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.