We need to get away from the fixation on smallholders and focus on a development model that actually improves livelihood opportunities, according to Stefan Dercon of the University of Oxford. Dercon has written critically about development programmes that support smallholder agriculture as a way out of poverty. Here he talks with Koen Kusters about the relation between smallholder farming, development aspirations and the environment.
You published an article in World Development about the role for smallholders in the future of agriculture in Africa, in which you criticize the model that you say is favoured by donors. What is that model?
It is the idea that all development starts with agriculture, and in particular with smallholders. The idea that all poverty reduction efforts should be directed at making them better farmers.
What’s wrong with that idea?
It does not consider what is needed to have growth trajectories. If you start to think about growth trajectories we are likely to see that many smallholders will have to move out of farming. Wanting to keep them in farming is like trapping them. This is only becoming more urgent in the context of climate change, as many smallholders are highly vulnerable. And the solution really isn’t to provide them with better seeds. It is true that smallholders are often poor, but that does not mean that poverty reduction strategies should start there. Low productivity smallholder farming is a dead end. It is almost impossible to make enough for a decent living. We need to get away from that fixation on smallholders and focus on a development model that actually improves livelihood opportunities.
What does that alternative model look like?
There will be fewer smallholders. That is not because I don’t like them; it is because I don’t want to see them trapped in poverty. I want them to have better lives. Of course, we should not push smallholders out of agriculture, but we should structurally transform economies, focusing on high productivity activities so that smallholders’ children will have better prospects in other sectors. This is already happening in many areas. Youth are leaving the countryside, and that’s not a bad thing. People don’t want to be poor for ever. There are good examples in Asia where cities in coastal areas have become centres of growth. The transformation may imply that farms will grow larger, with more machinery and higher productivity, to make sufficient returns.
How would you define a smallholder?
Farmers in highland Ethiopia measure their land in Timads. This is what an oxen can till in a day. An average farming family, which is there not larger than about five people, has two or three Timads, and that is what they can manage in terms of weeding and other tasks. To me, this exemplifies what a smallholder is. It is a family farm of a size that can be managed by their own manual labour and some hired or own animal traction. Often this is barely enough to make ends meet, but there are exceptions. In Thailand, there are small scale vegetable farmers near cities that make a decent living. In Ghana, there are small scale cocoa farms that provide attractive livelihood options. But when I talk about smallholders, I refer primarily to the vast number of marginalized and highly vulnerable farmers who have little or no opportunities to improve their situation — many of whom are in Africa.
In Africa, the majority of smallholders are women. What are the gender implications of the model you envision?
First, the statement that most African smallholders are women needs some nuance, as there are large differences between the vastly different farming systems across the continent. Second, a model that focusses on growth potential does not mean that women are negatively affected. Quite the opposite. Look at India and Bangladesh, where research shows that growth of non-farm employment has increased the bargaining power of women. In India it was found that rural women are inspired by the urban women they see on television, and pursue higher education to get out of farming. Never forget that farming is a tough job.
What types of value chains would be dominant in the alternative model you envision?
I am definitely not against international value chains; in fact, for many farmers they have provided attractive livelihoods. However, I think domestic value chains have a lot of potential too, as an important source of growth and diversification away from just growing basic low return staples in Africa. At the moment, the large cities in Nigeria and other West African countries for example, import food from abroad, and people live imported lifestyles. In an increasing number of countries, we notice that urban centres including rural towns are growing markets for diverse agricultural products cultivated in the region. Historically, this was seen in rural areas east of Paris – the Jardin de Paris – which used to be deeply impoverished, but which ended up benefitting from agricultural value chains linking them to the city. Rural areas can grow organically with urban areas.
Does the future of agriculture depend on local demand?
We must think much more about the demand side of agriculture, as demand will drive growth, and better livelihoods. This is very different from the usual model. A lot of agricultural strategies start with the supply side. They start with improved seeds and agricultural techniques. And then one hopes for the best that someone will buy the produce at a decent price. But that’s the wrong starting point. Any businessman will tell you that you should never start a business from the supply side. You need someone to buy your stuff!
Have you researched the aspirations of youth?
We did a study with youth in Ethiopia. They want education, and they want to leave agriculture. That makes sense to me. Once you have human capital, it is logical to want a job that is not just brawn, but also brain. When I talk to young people in rural Ethiopia, no one will tell me they want to be a farmer. They don’t want the existence of their parents. However, there is a problem when young people’s aspirations do not match the actual possibilities. A proportion of youngsters go to cities, attracted by an urban lifestyle, but end up disappointed. Any growth strategy needs to include efforts to drive and guide urbanization in a sensible manner, so it can absorb these people. Again, I think the solutions to rural poverty are not to be found in agriculture, but elsewhere.
Do you think this will decrease pressures on the environment?
We are doing a study near Virunga national park in DR Congo that is thinking in this direction. This area has all kinds of problems: environmental degradation, poverty and conflicts. Smallholders are encroaching on the forest. The traditional approach is to put a fence around the park, but that is not really working. Young farmers need a living, so they expand, and I fear that another honey or wild herb project is not going to work at the scale required. As part of our study, we have created hundreds of apprenticeships in the nearest city, Goma. This is to give alternative options to young farmers. The senior management of the park believes that the solution to protecting the park lies in the city, and our study is testing one possible way of supporting this.
Will international climate finance create possibilities for smallholders to earn a living from maintaining trees and forests in the landscape?
We are starting to realize that urban lifestyles will probably need to be taxed to finance better forest management for carbon sequestration, and smallholders could benefit from that. But we want to be careful. There is not enough thinking about what should be done with the carbon money. Are you going to pay cash to smallholders, or are you going to invest in an alternative future? I am constantly arguing with ministers here in the UK. There is much talk about nature-based solutions, but we really need to boost the quality of the supporting evidence. And what works at a small scale is rarely scalable. Our hopes and beliefs should not stand in the way of evidence.
Tropenbos International promotes multifunctional landscapes, where smallholders manage agricultural plots, agroforests and natural forests. How does that fit in your vision of the future?
Europe gives us ideas. Sheep farmers in Wales get paid for maintaining the landscape. We pay them for the services they provide. Eventually, people living in urban areas will have to pay people in rural areas so they can make a decent living from maintaining environmental services. It may be possible to achieve multifunctional landscapes, but we must think about their economics. And that also means that just like in Wales, it will only involve a small fraction of the farming families that used to make a living there. There are options, but don’t fixate just on smallholders. Look at the bigger picture. Sometimes farming can be a trap, and there will be better opportunities elsewhere. It is important to be aware of that.
Stefan Dercon is professor of economic policy at the Blavatnik School of Government and the Department of Economics at the University of Oxford, and Director of the Centre for the Study of African Economies. He is also development policy advisor to the Foreign Secretary at the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. Between 2011 and 2017, he was chief economist of the Department of International Development (DFID). Most of his research has focused on the causes of poverty and how to achieve change, mainly in Africa. He has written critically about development programmes that support smallholder agriculture as a way out of poverty.