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African small-scale agriculture at the cross-road?

Staple food production, agricultural diversification and poverty reduction.

With continuing food insecurity and a rise of extreme poverty, according to the UN, Sub-Saharan Africa is the epicentre of crisis amongst regions and countries showing little progress in achieving the Millennium Development Goals. Poverty on the continent is still rurally concentrated. Small family farming dominates rural employment and forms the backbone of the rural economy. Poverty and hunger is widespread and growing, particularly among the farm households approaching landlessness.

What strategies could be pursued to change this situation? Given the central role of agriculture in the countries of SSA, what agricultural development strategies could contribute to a change? Surprisingly, there is very little consensus on these matters, especially amongst development agencies. Some would claim that there is less of a consensus now than at any time over the last half century (Ashley and Maxwell 2001).

At the overall level, the rationale behind agricultural development in SSA as such is being questioned. The Chief economist for DfID, Adrian Wood, has envisioned a future Africa hollowed out with most population in the interior moving to the coasts, where they can be fed easily with imported food and where access to ports and economies of scale in manufacturing might make the sector more competitive (Wood 2002). The idea of bypassing the historical structural transformation process and to opt for an instant industrialization still seems to be attractive in spite of the great number of previous failed attempts.

The present situation is rather paradoxical. While there seems to be a growing consensus in the literature about the relationship between agricultural and overall economic growth (Mellor 1995, Timmer 2005) the question is now being posed Should Africa do any agriculture at all? (Harvard Magazine 2004:57).

The positive development in Asia and the role of agriculture as an engine of pro-poor growth in different Asian countries can, not be taken as a model for Africa, according to many macro economists. In a world of ample food supplies and low prices in the world market for food staples, open borders for trade, and continued agricultural protection in the rich countries, a future without agriculture would be a more efficient path for many African poor countries according to this view. It is being claimed that the world has changed so fundamentally that the old strategies do not apply.

Even among those who, in spite of two decades of slow growth in the agricultural sector in SSA, still see a future role for agriculture, there are widely differing views on what strategies to pursue. Two camps, the smallholder optimists and the smallholder pessimists can be discerned (Timmer 2005). The smallholder pessimists, who also point at the new global reality, add a number of conditions which they claim make a broad based agricultural development process unlikely, like prohibitively high cost of necessary investments in infrastructure due to low population densities, lack of technology suitable for Africas cropping systems and lack of water control.

Given the globalization of food trade and the revolution in supply chains with a rapid growth of supermarkets transforming food retail markets, a strategy aiming at increased productivity in small-scale agriculture is according to the pessimists doomed to fail. Instead it is the large-scale farms with-state-of-the-art technology that will be able to respond to the domestic and international markets for high-value crops and products.

The small-scale optimists, however, believe that the historically positive relationship between agricultural and economic growth still holds. The situation of low agricultural productivity and farm profitability characterizing most small-holder agriculture in SSA can and must be changed if a broad based process of poverty reduction is to be achieved.

Only with a substantial increase in the productivity of staple food agriculture will the great majority Africas population, the millions of semi-subsistence smallholders be able to invest in more education, in a more diversified output mix including high-value crops, and in new economic activities outside the farm.

Only if labour demand increases due to a more productive and labour intensive agricultural sector will the rural economy employ a larger share of a growing rural population for which the traditional alternative of opening up new land is fast closing.

These two widely diverging views of what role, if any, agricultural development can play in Africas development may to some extent represent very different views of the world. It may however, also represent the effect of our insufficient knowledge about the actual conditions and constraints facing African smallholders. While our understanding of the dynamic role of smallholder agriculture in Asia leans on a wealth of empirical data including a significant number of longitudinal studies, the reverse seems to hold for SSA in general.

This research project offers to fill some of the gaps.


Ashley, C. and S. Maxwell, 2001. Rethinking rural development. Development Policy Review 19 (4): 395-425.

Mellor, J. W., (Ed.) 1995. Agriculture on the Road to Industrialization. John Hopkins, Baltimore and London.

Timmer, P. (2005). Agriculture and Pro-Poor Growth: An Asian Perspective. Working Paper Number 63, July 2005, Center for Global Development, Washington D.C.

Wood, A., 2002. Could Africa be like America? Annual Bank Conference on Development Economics, Washington DC, The World Bank.

Researcher teams

The Swedish team is responsible for the comparative analysis and for the analysis of the Asian experience and its relevance to Africa. The teams sub-contracted are responsible for country case studies.

Swedish team

  • Göran Djurfeldt (team leader), Dept of Sociology, Lund University
  • Hans Holmén, Institution for Thematic research, Linköping University
  • Magnus Jirström, Dept of Social and Economic Geography, Lund University
  • Agnes Andersson, Dept of Social and Economic Geography, Lund University
  • Johanna Bergman-Lodin, Dept of Social and Economic Geography, Lund University
  • Cheryl Sjöström, Dept of Social and Economic Geography, Lund University

Sub-contractor teams

We have signed agreements with the following colleagues:


  • Dr. Wolday Amha, Ethiopian Economic Association
  • Dr. Teketel Abebe, Addis Ababa University
  • Dr. Mulat Demeke, Addis Ababa University


  • Professor Willis Oluoch-Kosura, African Economic Research Consortium (AERC)
  • Dr. Stephen K. Wambugu, Department of Geography, Kenyatta University
  • Dr. Joseph Karugia


  • Dr Bernard Bashaasha, Department of Agricultural Economics & Agribusiness, Makerere University, Kampala


  • Prof. Aida Isinika, Institute of Continuing Education, Sokoine Agricultural University



  • Mr. Mukata Wamulume, Institute of Economic and Social Research (INESOR)
  • Ms. Charlotte Wonani, Development Studies Department, University of Zambia
  • Prof. Oliver Saasa, Institute of Economic and Social Research, University of Zambia


  • Dr. Peter Coughlin, EconPolicy Research Group, Ltd., Maputo


  • Professor Olatunji Akande, Nigerian Institute for Social and Economic Research (NISER), Ibadan
  • Dr. Olorunfemi Oladapo Ogujndele, Nigerian Institute for Social and Economic Research (NISER), Ibadan