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Rural development

Agricultural competence

Small farmers can play an important role in food security. But that means changing the way in which they are supported. Moreover, they will have to consider themselves entrepreneurs.

By Jürgen Fechter

There are some 500 million small farmers around the world, according to the authors of the International Assessment of Agricultural Know­ledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD). Most of them live in the world’s poorest countries. The number itself illustrates that we must not underestimate the smallholders’ potential for ensuring food security, protecting the climate and fighting poverty.

Not the poorest of the poor

More than half of the people who live in extreme ­poverty and two-thirds of all undernourished children live in rural areas. They are usually counted among the smallholders. However, they are typically people without access to land or alternative sources of ­income. But strategies designed to promote smallholders typically assume that the target group has ­access to land. They are thus not aimed at the poorest of the poor.

Smallholders, in the strict sense of the word, are families who make a substantial share of their income from agriculture. One hectare (2.5 acres) of irrigated land or two to three hectares of rain-fed farmland is the minimum a family normally needs to get by. If individual family members have other sources of income outside agriculture and there is no extreme weather, such a family can fulfil its basic needs. It will, however, hardly be in a position to cope with major disasters such as multi-year droughts or repeated flooding of their fields. The promotion of smallholders, however, tends to improve living conditions in rural areas in general, so the poorest are likely to benefit too.

The way agriculture is promoted must change, however, if full advantage is to be made of small farms’ potential. Guaranteed access to land is essential. National and international agricultural policies – which basically tend to subsidise output – must change. They all but bypass smallholders who only produce small quantities. Agricultural research and extension services also play a role.

The increase in global demand for agricultural products has pushed up food prices. In itself, this trend is creating new opportunities in rural areas, especially in primarily agrarian economies. Investing in local infrastructure and improving other aspects of the farming context can make a substantial difference. Roads and irrigation systems help to boost farmers’ success, and so do good healthcare facilities. Farmers, moreover, need appropriate financial ser­vices and targeted advice. Governments in donor and recipient countries, along with the World Bank, G8 and G20 and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) have already announced such plans.

A crucial aspect, however, is often neglected: the small farmers themselves. They are the most important persons involved, and they must understand what is going on. Can they, all in one, be employers, food providers, environmentalists and guardians of the climate? This is not a foregone conclusion. Many small farmers are farmers simply because they do not see any other option, which is certainly not a good basis for success.

Entrepreneurial thinking

Farmers’ working conditions and attitudes can contribute to the success of developmental interventions. These issues are often underestimated, as the slogan of the IAASTD report “Business as usual is not an option” emphasises.

Smallholders often have no choice but to work in agriculture. In order to run a conventional farm long-term, however, they must invest in seed, fertilisers and pesticides. That requires taking out loans, if such services are on offer from the government or the private sector. Farmers must also understand their markets.

Farmers – whether big or small – are expected to treat their land and soil with care. They need to know when and how much of what kind of fertiliser to use, and they must understand the risks of pesticides and herbicides. Organic farming and soil-friendly plant cultivation equally require a good understanding of organic fertilisers, crop rotation, organic pest control and mechanical weed control.

If smallholders are to switch from traditional farming methods to more up-to-date ones, they will require more than merely primary education. They need specialised training. They have to develop an understanding of markets and of the natural environment. Small farming is quite knowledge intensive even in developing countries, and success depends on the recognition of new developments and taking advantage of new opportunities.

Programmes that fight rural poverty by distributing fertiliser and seed are unsustainable unless the farmers have a basic understanding of modern agriculture. If they have no adequate understanding of nutrients, plant varieties and soil characteristics, subsidised nitrogen fertiliser programmes are prone to lead to over- or underfertilisation as well as groundwater contamination. In the worst cases, yields suffer, and so does the environment.

Traditional knowledge of microclimates, soil quality and local plant varieties is valuable; it will often make the difference between success and failure. But this knowledge alone is no longer enough. Specific information on new technologies, innovation and markets matters too, and obtaining such knowledge is difficult and expensive for small farmers.

Another important aspect is that the young generation – especially those with potential and some education – tends to flee rural areas and shy from agriculture. To become a farmer is considered an unattractive and financially unrewarding choice. Farmers growing onions and grains in northern Mali in order to afford their children an education are likely to hope that their children will find a job Paris, Bamako or at least in Mopti – but not in agriculture. Such hopes are the rule, not the exception. More comprehensive rural development is needed for matters to change, and that includes investments in basic education and vocational training for farmers.

Rural self-confidence

Unlike some of the aid agencies, most farmers understand what is at stake. Consider the example of the chairwoman of a small farming association in East Africa who was asked whether she understood herself as an entrepreneur and how she rated the standing of farmers. She expressed outrage that programmes for small farmers were often seen as anti-poverty measures, insisting she did not want any charity, but was demanding investments in transport and water infrastructure. To be able to buy seed and fertiliser, moreover, she called for loans at less than the usual 35 % interest rate that microfinance institutions typically charge. She also wanted to get guaranteed market access.

That is how self-confident businesspeople speak – people who invest in their own skills, save money to buy machines, seed and fertiliser, and market their products. The self-confidence of such women and men inspires hope, and so do successful measures to boost the productivity of small farms (see box). Obviously, farmers are capable of learning. And they have the will to change.

Small farmers and rural areas can benefit from public and private investments. But even small-scale farming will not be able to provide a livelihood for all human beings. New ideas and strategies are increa­singly needed to successfully combat rural poverty. More rural jobs must be created outside agriculture, creating opportunities for people who no longer want to or can no longer work in agriculture. The remaining smallholders, however, would have the chance to professionalise their businesses.

We must not forget an important issue spelled out above, however: smallholders do not necessarily consider themselves entrepreneurs, food providers and environmentalists all in one. Farmers’ interests and traditions are not always in tune with social or environmental needs. To promote small farmers best requires a clear socio-political vision. The goals include
- fighting poverty,
- ensuring food security,
- protecting the environment and natural resources,
- improving vocational training and
- enabling people to benefit from the knowledge

Small farmers will benefit from doing their share to achieve these goals. If, one day, a farm teacher will tell his students at the start of their training that they’ve chosen a wonderful profession which will allow them to contribute to ensuring people get enough to eat, whilst protecting the environment and making good money, agriculture will have come a long way towards rising to its recruitment challenges and improving livelihoods in rural areas.

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The UN Sustainable Development Goals aim to transform economies in an environmentally sound manner, leaving no one behind.