Rural Development and Agriculture in Africa

We had a successful, friendly and interactive meeting to discuss rural development in Africa on Monday 29th October. The meeting was held jointly between LCID and Birmingham Fabians who are holding a series of “preparing for power” events. The discussion was opened by Dr Andrew Coulson a long standing Labour member and former Birmingham City Council who is currently working on aspects of agricultural and rural development in Tanzania.

The development of agriculture and the rural economy in Africa is highly relevant because all over the continent land is being purchased or otherwise obtained by large-scale farmers, sometimes promising to farm tens of thousands of acres. Ownership is often taken into the hands of large external corporations producing for rapidly fluctuating  export markets. It sometimes seems as if Governments and aid agencies have given up on small scale farming. Yet the track record of large scale agriculture in Africa is very poor indeed and has not led to reductions in poverty and in enhanced rural livelihoods.

Economists from the Marxist left (such as Henry Bernstein) and from the pro market right (such as Paul Collier) have  emphasised a commitment to the development of large scale commercial agriculture as a way forward for development. Land is being acquired at a rapid pace as a result of a wide variety of pressure and is now well documented, e.g. Fred Pearce The Land Grabbers (2012). This process is being driven by high world prices for food, by moves to bio-fuels in the US,  by increased demands in China and other countries, stalling of green revolutions e.g. in India and are all compounded by speculation in world markets, and global warming. In addition, Middle East and Asian countries such as Korea, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are trying to get land to grow rice to feed their populations.  DFID is under strong pressure from commercial interests to support large scale agriculture. Yet much of the evidence questions the benefits of these trends in the context of development objectives and this need to be  considered when setting Labour’s development priorities for post 2015.

Small scale farmers have found many ways to survive on a sustainable basis which can be verified through scientific assessment, for example, use of fallow periods, multiple or mixed cropping, use of many small plots, seed selection – for taste and drought, uses of trees, and famine crops and also  sophisticated risk avoidance.  Large commercial farms, often externally owned and oriented to global markets,  have a number of short term advantages, such as the choice of  very good soils/locations, use of protection against soil erosion, use of  high-yielding varieties and efficient marketing and/or processing – which in some cases small farmers cannot match . But they have very high fixed costs and are often inflexible in responding to changing environmental and economic conditions. They frequently to not contribute to sustainable development or provide locally produced food required in the case of many countries for the needs of growing urban populations.

At current world prices, small farms in Africa can produce food surpluses, and so feed the growing cities, if the conditions are right. Crucial to DFID development objectives under a future Labour government, small farm improvement is the only way that will also reduce poverty in the medium term. In  order to develop  practical tools for intervention and support, we need appropriate, farmer based,  research. We need to focus on marketing and farm prices and extension to support market forces. Farmers often have logic (and science) on their side – so aid agencies and their agents should make sure they listen to farmers and address problems through their eyes. Appropriate and effective delivery mechanisms are needed to ensure that the cost of delivery and  unit costs of inputs do not prevent support of small farmers in favour of large producers. Awareness and understanding of these issues is needed amongst politicians, experts and officials in the UK and other donor countries and bodies but also in the relevant Ministries within the countries concerned.


The meeting concluded that it was important to draw upon grassroots knowledge of development to inform Labour’s future policies and the participants welcomed the opportunity to contribute to this debate.


David Jepson is a member of LCID


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