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Is there a future for smallholder farmers in Africa?

Participants at the 2016 African Economic Conference think there is future for smallholder farmers on the continent. They think African countries can use build upon the Green Revolution in Asia and use the lessons learnt raise their productivity.

They spoke at the “Plenary session 5: Lessons on Agro-Allied Industrialization from country experiences” at Day 3 of the Conference where they highlighted how the experience of China is very relevant to us in Africa.

Moderator of the session, Paul Amaza, a Professor at the University of Jos, Nigeria, stressed the major role experiences play in agriculture. “African soils vary and need a more tailored approach,” he noted.

He spoke about how Asia had benefited from the Green Revolution, which started in the 1960s and had seen a drastic rise in agricultural productivity as a result of chemical advances and the development of high-yielding crops, making it possible to produce larger quantities of food.

“The Green Revolution resulted in regional food surpluses within 25 years in East Asia. Driven by the political will to make their countries self-sufficient in food, Asian countries doubled cereal production between 1970 and 1995, while the total land area cultivated increased by only 4 per cent. Furthermore, the Green Revolution mainly focused on irrigated wheat and rice together with improved crop varieties and expanded use of chemical fertilizers,” Amaza stressed, noting how mechanization could play a role in enhancing productivity among smallholder farmers.

Speaking on the Chinese experience, Xiaobo Zhang, a Professor at the China Center for Economic Research at Pekin University, emphasized the benefits of cross-regional mechanization of agriculture.

He identified low production scale as a major constraint of smallholder farmers in developing countries, but identified smallholder farmers as the hope of agriculture in Africa.

He disagreed with notions that African agriculture lies in large farms.

“From the Chinese experience, this is not true. It is possible to make the smallholder farmers productive. This is the key point for inclusive growth because there are so many smallholder farmers in Africa. If we could figure out ways to make sure they are productive, that could be a sure way to reduce inequality, increase their income and reduce their poverty,” he stressed.

He spoke about enablers to mechanization and expressed hope that it could resolve the inequality issue and empower many rural farmers.

“There are concerns in many African countries that if you promote mechanization you could take jobs away from people. My argument is no. During the harvest, there is always a labour shortage in almost all the African countries. So if we can increase mechanization we will have more land to farm on and solve the labour shortage at harvest time. During harvest time, people ask for leave from their workplaces and go back to their home towns and this disrupts the normal industrial production. So, if we could solve the labour shortage problem through mechanization, we can have a convergence between the dry season and the peak season, which can help the rural farmers as well. So, this is another advantage,”

Zhang gave instances with China where not every household owns a tractor, but they can easily access the ploughing services.

He called on governments to expand the market (establish trader and producer associations, update market information systems, among others). He also urged them to learn from China and overcome transport bottlenecks, build more storage centres, develop the processing sector, provide free land and help secure subsidized bank loans.

Liberia’s Deputy Minister for Planning and Development and Minister of Agriculture Charles N. McClain, spoke about how Liberia had adopted what he described as a ‘holistic approach’ as one of the lessons from his country.

He listed some of the enablers for the promotion of agro-allied industrialization to include: strategic vision and clarity of purpose, coordinated government action, engaging with stakeholders and restructuring government services.

Contributing to the discussion, Country Manager of AFEX Commodities Exchange Limited, Nigeria, Ayodeji Balogun, said: “We can’t achieve this goal [of agro-allied industrialization] without enhancement of production at the farm level.”

Distributed by APO on behalf of United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA).