The debate about farm size in Africa, kicked off by Stephen Carr’s blog post "African Agriculture: Does farm size really matter," has sparked discussions far beyond the “size” issue. With over 100 comments generated on LinkedIn groups, we’d like to share some of the prominent points made with our larger blog audience.
Commenters in the AIARD LinkedIn group engaged in a vibrant debate on rural-urban migration and its effect on farm size.
Pro Large Farms
Proponents of large farms argued in favor of rural-urban migration. Urban migration, they contended, makes more land available for large food production. The few rural people that remain “will have large farms to practice commercial agriculture.”
Others support the growing urban migration because it reduces pressure on already over-cultivated farmland in Africa. One commenter stated that over-cultivation of farmland in Africa has led to soil erosion due to destructive pressure on the land by the impoverished, as they are unable to afford adequate amounts of fertilizer, let land fallow or plant cover crops.
There was a clear sentiment that supporting small farms and subsistence farming would keep people in poverty. As one commenter writes, “Subsistence farming will never be anything but poverty, and farm size is what keeps many small farmers from adopting productivity-enhancing modernisations. Many Westerners tend to romanticize smallholder farming, but that just keeps people poor.” He continues, “trying to stop poor farmers moving to cities by tinkering with their systems is just a way to keep them poor a little longer. Ultimately they need off-farm income sources.”
Pro Small Farms
Those in support of small farms site that most of the African population depends on subsistence agriculture for their livelihoods. Therefore, we should focus on improving technology to enhance these existing systems. Others argue against rural-urban migration, claiming that cities in Africa are not well-planned, making it difficult for them to absorb unskilled rural migrants without endangering political stability. The African government will need to look into rural-urban migration before it is actively promoted.
One commenter was even in favor of the opposite—urban-rural migration—writing that African governments should provide the necessary infrastructure in rural areas to depopulate the “growing unproductive population in African cities.” But, as opponents of urban-rural migration may counter-argue, would this keep a greater number of people in poverty?
Cooperatives were avidly put down in this group. One commenter recommended exploring cooperatives, citing their success with thoughtful planning in the US and Africa. Others jumped in quickly and claimed that cooperatives have not worked for farmers, who consistently show to market collectively but do not produce collectively “as they insist on being in charge of their own production.”
This group is more in favor of small farms. Due to the large population of rural farmers in Africa, a mass of smallholders will be unemployed if small farms disappear. Others site that credit availability is the key to smallholder success and should be promoted. Some emphasize a focus on
One commenter writes:
“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.”
This group engaged in greater discussions about market access. Many smallholders produce what their ancestors did and not what is demanded in the markets, one commenter writes. In order to improve small farms, there needs to be more informed decisions from farmers. Connections and access to markets must be improved alongside the ability of farmers to respond to the market. But another commenter prefers large-scale farms “simply because with the right hybrid approach it can be engineered to be forced to accord the best optimization.”
"There is a clear clash here between agricultural efficiency which favours large farms, and social equity which favors small.”
This comment seems to aggregate a number of sentiments into one sentence. Large farms are controlled and owned by the wealthy or large companies, which not only have the potential to push the poor out, but they can also control the ownership and profit division.
So what does this mean?
Of course there is no simple answer. From the perspective of the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE), the issue is about access, security and sustainability. Farmers should have access to inputs (credit, resources, markets) to be able to plant what they are able to sow. Farmers should also have security, land and food so that they are not forced into decisions. Finally, there is also a need to look at the impact of local farming systems on the wider environment.
As WLE begins to design its focal regions in the Volta/Niger and the Nile River Basins, the issue of farm size and rural-urban transfers will be key components of the debate. We welcome everyone to continue the discussion here.