Friday, May 23, 2008

(AFRICAN EXECUTIVE) Smallholder Farmers Must Feed Us!

Smallholder Farmers Must Feed Us!

Our smallholder farmers can feed us if we change our attitude towards farming
Skyrocketing food prices are not only pushing people to desperation and hunger, but may lead to annihilation of populations in Africa. Of the 36 'crisis' countries named by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 21 are from Africa. Over 75% of Africa's 980 million people are frontline soldiers (smallholder farmers) in battling hunger! For years, our governments have always stated that 'agriculture is the backbone of the economy.' Why are then we running out of food?

Our foot soldiers (read- smallholder farmers) have endured myriad onslaughts that have left them numb. First was the attack from 'exotic' crop varieties such as maize, wheat, pawpaws, citrus fruit, and 'sukuma', among others, which reorganized their dietary habits. The demand for indigenous foods dropped and forced them to attempt production of 'exotic' crops. The modern day farmer's definition of hunger may be lack of maize, rice and perhaps wheat.

Smallholder farming faced yet another onslaught from colonial demand for labor force. Able-bodied men started migrating from villages to work on huge commercial farms and in government offices as clerks. Farming was consequently relegated to the school drop-outs and the illiterate! Governments and businesses worsened the matter by making it a habit to award ox-ploughs to retirees. Any time a politician is fired from a government position - he/she will be awarded with farm implements and talk of going to farm. In other words, only retirees, and rejects from the formal system of the economy are expected to be on the frontline against hunger. Schools on the other hand would punish devious students by assigning them agricultural tasks such as digging, planting and weeding.This cultivated a mentality in the youth that farming is a punishment.

The rigidity in farming methods has made it difficult for our farmers to feed Africa. The African Union estimates that over 200 million Africans are faced with famine. Big countries such as the United States of America buy food donations from American farmers and ship them on U.S flagged cargo. As a result, 65% of the cost towards food aid is consumed by America itself, and the food that lands in Africa distorts the agro-markets. Donors do not approach successful African farmers to supply countries with need; so market signals never reach our small- holder farmer.

The smallholder farmer is adversely affected by the high oil prices. Remember our small holder farmer's mode of transport used to be 'on-foot-on-leg' and ox - pulled carts. Suddenly, he found himself in a global economy driven by oil. Increased oil prices, the struggle to control energy sources by superpowers and global warming prophets created demand for biofuels that have suddenly led to a drop in (food) cereal supply. Lester Brown (Founder, Worldwatch Institute) argues that 800 million motorists who want to keep mobile are now competing for grains with 2 billion poorest people who want to survive.

As the Inter Region Economic Network (IREN) concludes its workshop on Improving the Life of Smallholder Farmers through Services, one can clearly see that Africa has an inefficient and ill equipped army against famine on its frontline. Our smallholder farmers can feed us if we change our attitude towards farming and get more youth interested; change our land policies both cultural and legal, reform our policies in Africa that impose high tariffs on intra Africa agricultural goods and target Africa as a market of a billion people. Looming food crisis, new food demand by China, developed country reduction of farmland available for food stuffs in favor for biofuel crops should be enough reason for us to position our farmers to supply the global market.

The challenges facing smallholder farmers are indeed many. However, the workshop which attracted academia, agribusiness, smallholder farmers, policymakers and experts from from Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, Tanzania, Cote De Voire, Senegal, Zimbabwe and Europe, among others, has demonstrated that multistakeholder linkages will help stir up the strong business robustness within smallholder farmers.

By James Shikwati
Mr. Shikwati is the Director of Inter Region Economic Network

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At 5:38 AM , Blogger MrK said...

I would like to link this article up to my manifesto which deals with agriculture and the improved services that can result from decentralisation.

They key to solving unemployment, food insecurity, rural poverty and wealth creation is to turn subsistence farmers into small and medium size commercial farmers.

It can be done by creating 100 hectare size farms, giving the farmer security of tenure to that land, and helping him or her out with machinery and transportation of their goods to market.

Developing a broad based, indigenous commercial agricultural industry is one of the basic elements of creating a developed economy.

At 5:41 AM , Blogger MrK said...

Also, the writer mentions the growing of 'exotic' crops like maize. I would agree. Corn yields much less per hectare than root crops (like potato, cassava), and is much less drought resistant than sorghum.

Perhaps it is time to bring back Africa's indigenous crops?


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