ICCO Cooperation aims to contribute to the realization of the Sustainable Development Goals and in particular to achieve food security, improved nutrition and sustainable agriculture.
To this end agri-food systems and smallholder producers are key, especially for Africa as the world’s youngest and fastest-growing population. However, the role of smallholder producers and the way in which agri-food systems should develop is debated.
Decades of neglect
Globally there are about 500 million small scale producers, characterized by having access to farm plots of 2 hectares or less. In Africa they produce up to 80% of the food consumed and support up to 2 billion people. The majority of them lack access to productive resources (e.g. land, water and seeds), extension and business development services as well as markets. Most of them are producers as well as buyers of food (IFAD 2010). Marginalized small scale producers, especially women, represent a large portion of the hungry and malnourished worldwide. Decades of neglect of the agri-food sector by both governments and development actors, increasing population pressures in combination with lack of investment in basic infrastructure, services and inputs have reinforced rural poverty. This vulnerability has further increased by climate change.
Most rural households in Africa continue to make a living from rain-fed agricultural production on shrinking plots of land. It is broadly assumed that agriculture-based livelihoods are no longer a viable option for many of the rural poor. Based on which development actors tend to focus on entrepreneurial farmers and commercial agricultural market systems, with the aim to integrate farmers in national and global value chains. This overlooks the fate of a large proportion of smallholder producers. Those who migrate to large urban centres in search of better opportunities often end up working in informal activities for very low rewards in precarious conditions. Rather than being pulled by better opportunities and higher quality work for higher rewards, they are being pushed out of work in primary agriculture or off farms in rural areas (Christian Aid and CAFOD 2017).
Explore agri-food systems for the poor
Recent literature reveals that focusing investments merely on entrepreneurial farmers, production increase and linking farmers (organizations) to national or global markets has come at a cost to the environment and has also increased inequality among smallholders. An example of this mechanism is given in a 2016 master thesis on contract farming for large scale production of malt barley in Ethiopia. Results show that short‐term effects on livelihood and food security among contract farmers were positive. However, it was also seen that contract farming has a certain degree of exclusiveness since better‐resourced farmers tend to capture the contracts, leaving poorer farmers out of the project.
Concerns are also raised about the long‐term effects since the value chain is controlled and supported by only one main actor. Looking at environmental issues, the newly introduced malt barley seeds are high maintenance, disease sensitive, and input intensive varieties. Much chemicals and fertilizer are needed in order to grow these seeds, which might lead to harmful side‐ effects on the environment in the long run.
There is a need to go beyond global value chains and ‘markets for the poor’ approaches and explore the potential of ‘agri-food systems for the poor’. This in order to take into account the demands and possibilities of (local) food markets. Well functioning diversified (local) food markets are key for sustainable food and nutrition security and economic development. A possible solution could be to link local producers to urban centers.
Link local producers to urban centers
In Africa the growing urban demand for higher-value and processed foods offer enormous potential for value addition. Unfortunately this urban demand is increasingly met through imports. However, research has shown that linking smallholder producers to small and medium urban centres leads to faster poverty reduction and more inclusive and sustainable growth than an exclusive focus on mega-cities and export markets (FAO 2015). Consumers in small and medium towns and cities tend to establish a closer relationship with their surrounding food providers. This, in turn, provides a more conducive environment for the emergence of local food economies and market systems that are environmentally sustainable and provide higher returns to producers and local processing, transport, and distribution enterprises. This seems to have more potential to create decent work and entrepreneurial opportunities for Africa’s growing rural and youth population, and inclusion of smallholder producers (Christian Aid and CAFOD 2017).
More long-term investments
More coherent long-term investments are needed for tailored policies, programs, technologies, infrastructure and services required by small-scale producers and agri-enterprises. In addition specific attention for ecological and diversified production methods as well as the strategic role of female smallholder producers and entrepreneurs is needed to ensure more sustainable and equitable agri-food systems. Based on broad and long term experience with promoting economic empowerment and food security in the global south, ICCO is well positioned to contribute to and monitor more equal and sustainable development interventions in favor of smallholders and their food and nutrition security. Which can mean a step towards the realization of the Sustainable Development Goals.