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Smallholder Farmers Feeding the Future: Opportunities and Challenges

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Today’s post is the fourth in a Feed the Future/Reform blog series that MFAN has been coordinating with key members of the community. To read the first post by Bread for the World, click here. To read the second post by the World Food Program USA, click here.  To read the third post by ActionAid USA, click here.

Read below to learn about the potential of smallholder farmers and how the Feed the Future initiative “aims to increase food security, improve nutrition, and boost incomes of smallholder farmers by bolstering infrastructure and market access, promoting innovative partnerships, and enabling farmers to produce beyond the subsistence level,” all key elements of reform.

A Guest Post by Rachel Voss

Communications and Research Associate, Partnership to Cut Hunger and Poverty in Africa

Sub-Saharan Africa’s hunger problem is in fact a hunger paradox.  As in other regions in the developing world, upwards of 70 percent of the continent’s population—and often the poorest portion of the population—are engaged in farming.  Despite Africa’s inherent potential for food production, hunger and malnutrition remain core obstacles to the continent’s overall development.  The explanation lies in the small-scale, subsistence nature of agricultural production in Africa and many other developing regions.

The U.S. government’s Feed the Future initiative aims to increase food security, improve nutrition, and boost incomes of smallholder farmers by bolstering infrastructure and market access, promoting innovative partnerships, and enabling farmers to produce beyond the subsistence level.  The reasoning is clear: It is increasingly accepted that agricultural growth is an effective method to reduce poverty. A 2007 IFPRI study finds that a 1 percent increase in agricultural income per capita reduces the number of people living in extreme poverty by between 0.6 and 1.8 percent.  In a number of places around the world, programs supporting small-scale agricultural production have found wide success in combating hunger, poverty, and malnutrition.Farmers Assoc 2006 Malawi

Feed the Future’s comprehensive approach has the potential to engage smallholders at unprecedented levels.  A range of stakeholders, including local civil society and private-sector interests, participate in the development and implementation of country-led agricultural investment plans.  Individual producers, farmers’ associations, small- and medium-scale enterprises, and large agribusinesses thus have a seat at the negotiating table.  Feed the Future has also pledged to align its programs with the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP), an Africa-led initiative to boost government spending in agriculture sectors and support smallholder agricultural growth.

However, Feed the Future’s pledges and broad consultation processes are the first steps down a long road to smallholder empowerment.  With the program’s implementation stage only just beginning, there are many changes needed to ensure that smallholders’ interests come first.  At the Partnership to Cut Hunger and Poverty in Africa’s recent U.S.-Africa Forum, discussion groups examined challenges to expanding partnerships while identifying new opportunities in Feed the Future and related initiatives.

Forum participants agreed that the integration of emergency food aid with long-term agricultural development remains a core challenge to U.S. programs.  Feed the Future backs a broad array of approaches to address the supply side of the equation: research on new technologies, the development of regional markets to improve access, better management of natural resources for production, and extension services to smallholder farmers and producers’ organizations.  However, formal mechanisms for linking country priorities and food security programs with U.S. food assistance programs, especially emergency Title II food aid, have yet to be established.  Feed the Future is already supporting innovations such as the UN World Food Programme’s Purchase for Progress (P4P) pilot program and providing conditional cash transfers or vouchers in cases where markets are full but vulnerable populations have no means to buy food.  These innovative food assistance solutions are already producing measurable results and valuable lessons for the development of a wider range of tools and solutions for hunger.  Perhaps most importantly, a new level of monitoring, evaluation, and learning is needed to identify the most appropriate indicators of success and determine what works and what doesn’t, what is most cost-effective, and what complementary efforts yield the highest impacts.  Once best practices are identified, they need to be shared, incorporated into future programs, and scaled up.

The US. government has also expressed support for farmers’ organizations and cooperatives which strengthen the voice, market power, and productive potential of smallholders.  However, Forum participants identified a number of steps that must be taken before the potential of farmer’s associations is realized.  Donor timelines are often too short to develop the organizational capital, partnerships, and human resources within producers’ organizations that are required for success, so multi-year investment plans with longer time horizons are crucial.  Additionally, because improving smallholder access to land and resources can mean changing existing cultural, political, and demographic arrangements, Feed the Future’s implementation plans must be comprehensive and cross-sectoral.  Above all, an explicit mechanism for Grain Storage Malawi 2006supporting farmers’ organizations and trade associations must be established within the Feed the Future framework—one that keeps them independent of government and focuses more on engaging women and youth.

The private sector plays a crucial role in transforming subsistence farming into an income-generating activity for smallholder farmers.  The development of business partnerships, more efficient value chains, and infrastructure for processing and storage has the potential to translate into unparalleled gains for smallholder producers as well as consumers.  However, Forum participants noted that mistrust between the public and private sector, high start-up and operating costs, as well as a lack of information on viable business opportunities in Africa, have long limited U.S. private sector engagement in Africa.  Feed the Future must commit to improving the investment and policy environment for private-sector interests, providing kick-start incentives for business development, building physical and organizational infrastructure, promoting public-private partnerships, and integrating regional markets, all of which will be vital to promoting smallholder farmers and business interests in Feed the Future countries.

Finally, Feed the Future seeks to mobilize higher-education institutions in research for agricultural productivity and human resource development, partly through the Norman Borlaug Commemorative Research Initiative.  However, research institutions, extension agents, and smallholders in Africa are widely known to operate in separate spheres.  Tertiary education institutions are too often “siloed,” failing to impart practical, business-oriented agricultural knowledge to students and producing graduates not fully prepared for the work environment.  Additionally, higher-education institutions have been largely excluded from private-sector partnership agreements and countries’ CAADP Compact strategy development processes.  Feed the Future can help to address this issue by increasing the role of higher-education institutions as partners in agricultural development processes.  The main challenges Forum participants identified will be: connecting universities with agricultural researchers and smallholder farmers; recovering institutional and human resource capacity that has been lost in recent decades; promoting partnerships with the private sector; rebuilding two-way partnerships with U.S. institutions; and ensuring that the contributions of the higher education community are recognized in CAADP investment plan development.

The new opportunities for partnerships presented in Feed the Future have caused ripples throughout the field of agricultural development and food security.  In numerous respects, the leaders of this innovative initiative have expressed commitment to improving the lives of smallholders throughout the developing world.  Experienced practitioners remind us, however, that realization of this commitment will take time.  A degree of flexibility uncharacteristic of U.S. government programs will be required to build up necessary partnerships, measure the real impacts of investments, and apply lessons learned to reform existing programs.  Feed the Future has started off on the right foot, but we are all responsible for holding the U.S. government to its pledge to work alongside partners in sub-Saharan Africa to enable millions of smallholder farmers to build a more food-secure and prosperous future.

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