Small farmers can make the most of Africa's land

In Kenya, 11 million people suffer from malnourishment. Twenty percent of children younger than five are underweight, and nearly one in three are below normal height. In a typical day, the average Kenyan consumes barely half as many calories as the average American.

But Kenya – and other underfed countries throughout Sub-Saharan Africa – have more than enough land to grow the food needed for their hungry populations.

The juxtaposition of food deprivation and land abundance boils down to a failure of national agriculture policies, says Thom Jayne, professor of international development at Michigan State University. Governments haven’t helped small farmers acquire rights to uncultivated land or use the land they own more productively, he said.

Speaking earlier this month at a symposium organized by the Center on Food Security and the Environment, Jayne said lifting African farmers out of poverty will require a new development approach.

The focus, he said, should be on increasing smallholder output and putting idle land to work in the hands of the rural poor.

Much of Sub-Saharan Africa’s fertile land, Jayne explained, falls under the ownership of state governments or wealthy investors who leave large tracts of land unplanted.

Meanwhile, population density in many rural areas exceeds the estimated carrying capacity for rainfed agriculture – approximately 500 persons per square kilometer, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. Above this density threshold, farm sizes become so small, farming becomes economically unsustainable.

“As farm size shrinks, it’s increasingly difficult to produce a surplus,” Jayne said. “As it’s difficult to produce a surplus, it becomes difficult to finance investments in fertilizer and other inputs that could help you intensify.”

Agricultural development policies, Jayne said, have exacerbated these problems. One Zambian fertilizer subsidy program, for example, delivered support payments to over 50 percent of farms greater than five hectares in size – but only reached 14 percent of farmers whose holdings measured one hectare or smaller.

“This was a poverty reduction program that was targeted to large farms,” Jayne said. “Where’re the allocations to R&D appropriate to one hectare farms, tsetse fly control, vet services, all the things that are going to make that one hectare farm more productive?”

He stressed that investments in small farms could reduce poverty.

“Fifty to seventy percent of the population in these countries is engaged in agriculture,” he said. “There aren’t very many levers to reduce poverty and get growth processes going except to focus on the activities that that fifty to seventy percent are primarily engaged in.”

Smallholder-based growth strategies delivered stunning results in Green Revolution-era India – while large-farm strategies in Latin American countries have largely failed to alleviate rural poverty, he said.

Symposium commentator Byerlee, a rural policy expert and former lead economist for the World Bank, agreed with Jayne. In particular, Byerlee expressed skepticism about the benefit of large land investments by foreign agricultural interests.

“The social impacts aren’t going to be very much,” he said of the large-scale mechanized farming operations favored by foreign investors.

“They don’t create many jobs,” he said. “That’s really what we should be focusing on in terms of poverty reduction – job creation.”

Byerlee also stressed the need to formalize Sub-Saharan Africa’s land tenure systems. Currently, he said, about eighty percent of Africa’s land is titled informally under “customary” rights.

“When you have this population pressure, and on top of that you have commercial pressures coming in from investors, this system is just not going to stand up,” he said. “If you had better functioning land markets, it could reduce the transaction costs for investors, allow smallholders to access land, and provide an exit strategy for people at the bottom end.”

Jayne suggested reforms and new policies should include mechanisms to help small farmers gain access to unused fertile land. He called for comprehensive audits of land resources in Sub-Saharan African nations, a tax on uncultivated arable acreage, and a transparent public auction to distribute idle state lands to small farmers.

Additionally, he said, governments can help by improving infrastructure in remote rural areas and clearing fertile land of pests – such as tsetse flies – that threaten crops and human health.

But whatever particular policies they choose to pursue, Jayne said, African governments cannot afford to ignore the problems associated with inequitable land distribution and low smallholder agricultural productivity and. Failure to implement broad-based, smallholder-focused growth strategies will result in “major missed opportunities to reduce poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa,” he said.

This was the seventh talk in FSE's Global Food Policy and Food Security Symposium Series.