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Empowering the smallholder farmer

There is a Nigerian joke that goes: “An old Igbo farmer wrote a letter to his son in prison. “Emeka”, he said, “this year I won’t be able to plant yam and cassava because I can’t dig the field, I know if you were here you would help me.” The young man wrote back: “Dad, don’t even think of digging the field because that’s where I buried the money I stole.” Upon reading the letter, the police came looking for the hidden money, but nothing was found. The following day the son wrote again to his father. “Now you can plant your yam and cassava dad, this is the best I can do from here.” His father replied. “Wow son! You must be a powerful man. Yesterday a whole group of policemen with hoes and shovels came digging. I will write back to you when I want to harvest…”

While this is a funny story, it does say much of the archaic mechanization issues most farmers still face in Africa. However, this problem is not just limited to farming tools. Lack of adequate warehousing, changing seasonal market demand and difficulties with food-to-market delivery mean that around a third of what does get produced is lost before it even reaches the market.

Long-term speculators, who see African agribusiness as an exciting new frontier, are generally aware of this fact. However, their excitement often does not extend beyond the simple buying up of land already in use by so called ‘smallholder farmers’. These in turn, due to the lack of effective land registration, are often completely unaware that they are tilling someone else’s patch of land. Until they are thrown of it. This creates a mass of people constantly wandering the country and looking for soil. Farmers tend to be locked into this way of life, because they have poor access to education and other economic involvement. Therefore, investors’ efforts, to buy up as much land as possible while it is still cheap, not only ignores the realities on the ground, but may actually be contributing towards destabilizing a sector with even more potential than we think.

After all, improving the agriculture system in Africa arguably has the most potential to affect overall development. There is not only a need to feed the extra 1.3 billion people expected to be born by 2050, but to educate and economically activate them as well. Giving smallholders the chance to participate actively in Africa’s agricultural boom would simplify many of these problems, an argument put forward by one of Africa’s foremost experts in the field, Dr Agnes Kalibata, who wrote last year that, “If we empower smallholder farmers to achieve their aspirations, they will do the heavy lifting of development themselves.” But are these not just fanciful words? How DO we make sure smallholders are activated?

Well, one of the ways in which this can be done is the development of so-called “Agrihubs” across the continent. These tend to be centres connecting an area ranging anywhere between a few hundred to tens of thousands of hectares. They offer local farmers a sort of ‘central point’ where they have access to the necessary services and infrastructure. It is a clever way of skipping the time otherwise required by government to expand central infrastructure to remote rural areas.

What is more, such hubs can be set up by practically anyone, whether government, foundation or investor. The land around this structure is then leased to farmers, who trade in a part of their produce for the technology and support these nerve centres provide. In fact, recent innovation has proved that agrihubs don’t even need to be limited to the earthly sphere. Virtual hubs such as agritools.org, a website set up by journalists from across the world, seek to create a platform where innovative solutions to farming problems are available to anyone with internet access.

The initial might of its size and complexity often lets the colossus of development stare us down before we even start to solve it. However, history has proven that it is often the simple solutions that lead to the biggest outcomes. We cannot yet be sure, whether agrihubs are such a solution, but we do know one thing: their simplicity and potential mean that all of us can get involved.

By Thomas McEnchroe, Djembe Communications