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Gaining perspective: How will rural-urban migration affect farm size?

Compelling discussion, commentary, stories on agriculture within thriving ecosystems.

As the discussion on farm size continues to grow from Stephen Carr's blog post: "African Agriculture: Does farm size really matter?", Carr responds to comments that have been aggregated in this post: "We asked, you answered: Does farm size really matter in Africa?".  Formerly of the World Bank, Carr has spent 60 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.

Photo: Neil Palmer/CIAT

I find the snippets from pro large-farm comments lack an apparent awareness of the real issues.  Commentors in favor of large-farms believe that urban migration will make more land available for large-scale food production, provide improved farming opportunities for farmers who remain in the field, and greater employment opportunities for those who move to the cities.  But, if you get people off of the land and into the cities, you cannot assume that the remainder will have adequate land and that it will be farmed properly.

Let us look at one of Africa’s larger populations in Ethiopia, with a total population of around 80 million—13 million in cities and 67 million in rural areas.  If you follow the pattern of clearing the Scottish Highlands to make way for large farms (where the army was sent to burn down the homes of hundreds of thousands of people and drive them into urban destitution), the remaining rural population in Ethiopia would move from 1 ha. to 2 ha.  But the population will double to 160 million over the next 30 years, so unless the urban population can be forced above 83 million (over 6 times the present level), then the rural population will be back to 67 million and farm size will be back to 1 ha.

It is patently obvious that in this century, forcible land clearing on this scale is out of the question and that proposals for mass movements into cities, which offer few employment opportunities, are just not going to take place.

In Malawi, with smaller farms than Ethiopia and less urban development, the level of expulsions from the land in order to achieve 2 ha farms over the next 30 years are unthinkable.

Nigeria also has one of the larger populations in Africa and is most unusual in having 50% of its population already in urban areas because of its oil wealth.  Even so, the rural population has grown from 46 million in 1973 to an estimated 75 million today.

One just has to look at India with its massive urbanization and industrial development to gain some perspective of the scale of the problem.  In 1973, the rural population of India was around 475 million.  Following 40 years of urban development, the rural population grew to 840 million with a consequent contraction in farm size.  With a population currently growing at more than 10 million a year, it will take many more years of urbanization to get it back to where it was 40 years ago and to the farm sizes which existed then.

In densely populated countries, urban development in most of Africa is not going to lead to any significant increase in per capita land availability because of the ongoing rapidity of overall population growth.  Forceful evictions like the 18th century British model on a scale which would make a real difference are unthinkable in today’s world.  Stalin might have killed 23 million peasants to gain access to their land for state farms in the 1930’s but hopefully the infinitely larger purges, which would be required in Africa and Asia, would be met with much greater resistance today.

There are of course countries in Africa where large-scale farming could be practiced with no need for sweeping people off the land.  Zambia, Mozambique, Southern Sudan, the Central African Republic (CAR) and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) all have land to spare and the move from small to large does not require any displacement of people.  The constraints are political (CAR and DRC) and technical and financial in the case of the others.


This is obviously a rich discussion.  Demography and rural-urban migration are key issues that are often not taken into account when we discuss farm-level issues.  The effects of changing conditions on farm size, both in population and climate, also remain to be seen.  This is an area that the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems hopes to continue understanding.

Editorial note: A typo has been corrected: the urban population of Ethiopia is 13 million, not 30 million.


Stephen, I read your piece above, but it is so full of faulty assumptions, I will have to take them step by step.

First, your assumption that Ethiopia's population will grow to 160 million in 30 years, and the cannot stuff most of those people into cities. One cannot assume that population growth will (or even can) continue at present rates. The result would be mass starvation and/or conflict over resources. Either of these scenarios would truncate population growth.

If you cannot stuff all those people into cities, likewise you cannot stuff them onto the land, it does not and cannot support so many. Especially in northern Ethiopia the land is already beyond its carrying capacity. The extra people would have to go somewhere.

And, as people move to cities, family size usually falls, usually to something close to replacement rate (~2.2 children per family.) So urban migration leads to population stabilisation.

Another false assumption is 'expulsion' or 'forcible clearing' of people from land. Nobody is talking about using force. If you have worked with smallholder farm families, you know many of their members leave voluntarily, or out of economic necessity, to work on larger farms, off-farm enterprises, or in distant cities and countries. This process has been going on for decades now. Small farming simply can no longer support families by itself, and families are switching their income streams to other activities.

Thirdly, Nigeria is not exceptional for being 50% urbanised. Senegal is also, with other countries following suit. It is NOT due to oil wealth, since the oil-based activities are concentrated in the Delta. Rather, it is Nigeria's diversified economy that attracts people to cities, as well as rural crowding that squeezes them out of the countryside.

This is the main point you should absorb - a healthy African economy is like a healthy economy anywhere - diversified, with strong service and manufacturing sectors and a diminished reliance on small-scale dirt farming.

Also, Inida does not have '40 years of urban development.' Its economic modernisation is much more recent, and its rural-to-urban migration is proceeding apace, with population growth leveling just beginning.

The entire point is that development resources really ought to be going into supporting African countries' efforts to modernise their economies, rather than clinging to small-scale farming which is a sentence to eternal poverty. That means helping develop off-farm employment, industry, services, infrastructure, etc., and at the same time, modern farms that are large enough to provide a decent living standard to farmers AND produce more food for the rest of the population.

I understand that the aid industry contains a certain entrenched constituency that feels wedded to small-scale farming, but I'm concerned that this old guard is holding back real development of the sort that the people are undertaking on their own anyway.

Thank you Seth for your comments on my blog concerning farm size and population. I will deal with the issues you raise in the order in which you have placed them.

The population of Ethiopia. I am not assuming any figure for the future population of Ethiopia but depending upon the work of the expert demographers of the UN. I would suggest that you re-visit the most recent projections for Sub-Saharan Africa put out by the UN. These demographers are not looking at past patterns of growth but at current realities. If, as in much of Africa including Ethiopia, women are giving birth to an average of five children in their lifetime and the child death rate is falling substantially, then the population is bound to double in a generation and that is the situation which we face on this continent. I imagine that at the time of the Ethiopian hunger of the 1980's when the population was 40 million there were those who were reluctant to believe that it would have doubled to the 80 million which the country supports to-day. In my own country of Malawi which is much more densely populated than Ethiopia and which currently struggles to support 15 million people, we have to face the fact that the UN demographers state that we will be 30 million in less than 30 years.

You mention a possible decline in fertility rates to 2.2 as urbanisation increases. If you study the population pyramids of Sub-Saharan countries you will see that even if the impossible happened and all the women in Africa agreed to have only 2 children the population would still double in a generation because in most countries there are twice as many girls and young women in the cohort of 1 to 20 year olds as there are women in the cohort of 20 to 40 year olds. I am not therefore making assumptions about population growth but accepting the facts as presented by those whose profession it is.

With reference to "forcible clearing" this is simply a response to those who aim to replace small scale farms with larger ones in a situation in which all the facts point to a rapid increase in the rural population of the majority of African countries for many years to come. The trend of the past 50 years of rapid population growth has been towards the splitting of larger farms into smaller units. Demographic facts would indicate that as rural populations double in the coming years then those who want to see larger farms in densely populated countries will have to resort to "forcible clearing" in order to achieve their objective. The numbers of people leaving the countryside for the cities and other countries to whom you refer simply are not doing so in sufficient numbers to counteract the rapid rise in rural populations. As you rightly state "this process has been going on for decades now" and yet the growth in the number of small farming families has continued unabated and shows every sign of continuing so to do.
"Forcible clearing" is of course going on now where multinational corporations take over huge swathes of land for large scale agriculture and displace the local population.

You refer to my comment on the exceptional situation of Nigeria's ratio of urban to rural people. One can obviously quibble about the meaning of exceptional but on a continent in which the overall average level of urbanisation is 36% then countries with over 50% become unusual. There is more to it than that. It is the 50% urban figure of Nigeria and the 60% for South Africa which push up the total figure for Sub-Saharan Africa into the mid 30's. If one looks at the next five most populated countries in Africa with more than a quarter of the continent's total people, the percentage of the urban population in these is 28% which makes Nigeria appear more exceptional. Whether this is derived from oil wealth is a matter of opinion but I must say that the people of the Niger Delta would be more than delighted if the wealth had been allowed to stay there rather than moving out to the rest of the country. Having worked in Nigeria a number of times since I first went there in 1952 I believe that its pattern of urbanisation would have been quite different in the absence of oil money.

We are entirely agreed on the need to modernise African economies so as to provide opportunities for productive work outside of small scale agriculture. This will not only provide more remunerative returns to labour but also stimulate the market for agricultural produce and so benefit the farming sector. The challenge remains that this is not happening nearly fast enough to keep up with rural population growth and so the rural areas are forced to go on providing a base for all those hundreds of millions who cannot as yet be absorbed into the modern sector.

Discussions like this about a urban migration are a good a way to promote and expand the topic. Thanks for your nice post. Great job Stephen.

Personally, I don't agree with Seth's view on 'expulsion' or 'forcible clearing' of local people from land in Ethiopia. The statement that 'Nobody is talking about using force... many of their members leave voluntarily, or out of economic necessity'' is not right.

Currently, there is a serious land grabbing in the country both by foreign and national private investors and even the state itself. Government officials and experts play central role in ensuring smallholder farmers are dispossessed and land resources are controlled by non-local forces without adequate compensation to the locales. The processes of land grabbing in Oromia (Yayo) , Benshangul, Gambella (Godere) and SNNPR suggest that displacement of farmers was involuntary and forcible.

There was a recent resistance movement in the South West Ethiopia where some farmers in Gambella protested the land grabbing and killed foreign nationals working for a private agricultural investment company (http://www.ethiomedia.com/2012_report/3750.html).

Many of those displaced by powerful corporates from their ancestral lands are now facing serious challenges and have become unable to support their families.