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African smallholder farm families have lost the elasticity to bounce back!

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

This post is part of the Agriculture and Ecosystems Blog’s month-long series on Resilience.

Building resilience on Africa’s small farms starts with people and investing in their capacity to bounce back after a shock. These shocks could be external, such as droughts and floods that wipe out an entire livestock herd or destroy a crop field. Or, they could mean loss of income and physical assets, many times due to unforeseen prolonged illness.

How can we move beyond focusing on survival and focus on building healthy, resilient farming communities? Photo Credit: Africa Renewal on Flickr How can we move beyond focusing on survival and focus on building healthy, resilient farming communities? Photo Credit: Africa Renewal on Flickr

If a family member falls ill, their care is often financed by selling off productive assets such as livestock or agricultural tools. Harvest barely meets more than three months of the family food needs for a majority of the farmers.

African smallholder farm families are amongst the world’s poorest because we have not invested enough in helping them bounce back after major shocks. One dry season or one bout with malaria can push families into a poverty trap. When households have depleted their productive assets (finances, livestock, farming implements), they can barely survive. How do we expect such households to improve and sustain their productivity? How can we expect a bounce back for communities that have lost elasticity?

Determine the vulnerability of farmers

At the Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN), for the past ten years we have been investing in quantifying the livelihood assets in farming families in 6,000 rural households in Lesotho, Zimbabwe, Swaziland and Malawi. Using the FANRPAN “household vulnerability index,” we categorize farm families into (1) fully viable and coping, (2) moderately vulnerable and (3) welfare on the basis of quantified livelihood assets.

Five metrics determine vulnerability over time:

  1. natural assets (e.g. farm size, soil quality, rainfall)
  2. physical assets (e.g. farming tools, livestock)
  3. financial assets (e.g. income, remittances)
  4. human capital (e.g. number of able-bodied family members versus dependents)
  5. social capital (e.g. knowledge, coping mechanisms, strength of community and extended family relationships)

Over a ten-year period, we saw a decline in resilience and more people sliding into poverty. Chronic poverty increased to 22 percent of all communities assessed in 2013 from 14 percent in 2003. The middle class, experiencing moderate vulnerability, has declined by 13 percent with 5 percent of the households graduating out of poverty, while 8 percent shifted deeper into chronic poverty.

Photo: FANRAPAN Alice Mdluli is head of her farming family in Swaziland. Photo: FANRAPAN


Picture this: Alice Mdluli (pictured on the right) is the head of a farming family in Swaziland. The 2007 drought struck at a time when she had a bare minimum level of productive assets. She sold most assets to stay alive and look after her five grandchildren, who are all under 10 years of age. All she is left with is an ox drawn plough that cannot be used because the family has sold all their cattle to finance their children’s education. The cattle and farming tools had been purchased eight years ago after successive bounty harvests that produced sufficient food for the family and a surplus for the market.  The income from the sales were also invested into modernizing their dwellings moving from a thatched hut to a brick house with metal roofing. This house was destroyed by the recent floods and all that they now own are two mud huts with a leaking thatched roof.

Now, with no cattle, all cultivation is done manually with hand hoes. It’s back-breaking work. Yields will continuously decline because the necessary capital assets for raising income have been depleted. Unless these genuine farmers are retooled, they will permanently become welfare cases and rely on food hand-outs for bare survival.

How can we, those of us in the development world, move beyond focusing on survival and focus on building healthy, resilient farming communities?

What communities have told us is that because of persistent droughts, mainly attributed to climate change, agricultural productivity and income from farming has gone down by up to 70 percent, and farm families are persistently selling their productive physical assets such as livestock and farm implements to meet food requirements, education and medical bills.

Farmers bounce back with appropriate support

But we have also witnessed the potential of farm families, as they respond positively to retooling with both food aid and relevant livelihood assets. They can bounce back to be the breadbasket to feed their families and their country.

Photo: FANRAPAN Happy Shongwe, a commercial seed grower in Swaziland Photo: FANRAPAN


Take Happy Shongwe (pictured on the left), for example, who lives in the same district as Alice Mdluli. After losing her entire annual crops as a result of the 2007 drought, she received food aid for two seasons and did not have to sell off her assets. She also received training by the government to become a seed grower. Four years later, Happy is now a full time commercial seed grower, training and contracting 20 other farmers to produce certified legume seeds, which she is packaging on farm and selling nationwide. She used proceeds from her business to buy a second-hand tractor and her dream is to venture into exporting seeds regionally.


For too long in the development game, we have concentrated on no winners, but just losers and survivors. This explains why 1 billion people worldwide go to bed hungry every day and why up to 5 million children die annually as a result of malnutrition. The sad thing is that the majority of these deaths happen in farm families--the very people charged with the responsibility of feeding the nation are failing to meet their family food and nutritional requirements. How do we elevate the game to achieve a win-win outcome?

We cannot improve what we don't measure. There is a lot we do not know on how best to prepare farm families for shocks and how these interventions should differ amongst affected farmers.

Build resilience by retooling farmers with productive assets

As a development practitioner, striving for a world where all people have access to enough nutritious food and livelihood options to fulfil their potential, I believe three things must happen:

  1. investing in research to determine the required assets for successful and sustainable agriculture,
  2. quantifying households endowment of requisite livelihood assets,
  3. recapitalizing farm families by replenishing and restoring their social capital in the form of new knowledge, financial and physical assets through food transfers, cash transfers and other instruments that allow farm families to build up their stock of productive assets.

Farmers who can't feed their families are a liability to the nation.  Retooling smallholder farmers with productive assets  is an imperative in building resilience.  This will increase farmers’ ability to bounce back to their original state or, better still, help them become better off than they were before.  With climate change predicted to reduce agricultural productivity by up to 30 percent in my region, Africa’s graveyards will have the highest count of farm families.  Policy makers must act now to ensure that post-shock interventions are not solely about rescuing farmers with food aid but about building their resilience to withstand subsequent shocks.

Dr. Sibanda will be speaking at this week's Building Resilience for Food and Nutrition Security in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia May 15-17, 2014 hosted by IFPRI. Follow the conference: #2020Resilience.


Great post, Lindiwe ! I think with the examples you are giving you provide initial answers to some of my last blog's questions about poverty traps, pointing to what I called risk traps and variability traps. The other essential message I see from your post is the need to put livelihoods and related assets first, not production, when addressing crises faced by the rural poor.

Excellent article, the case studies illustrating the lives of certain individuals and families --- and how they have either fallen into or escaped from the poverty trap --- really helps communicate the real-world implications of the trends you are describing. "For too long in the development game, we have concentrated on no winners, but just losers and survivors" --- couldn't agree more.

Fantastic article. lets call it lamentation. do our development partners understand and appreciate the main issues appropriate to bringing people out of the poverty trap and keep them firm and not to slide back to poverty? are we influencing practice and policy on this regard.