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Incorporating Small Holder Farmers in Africa

I am often surprised at the frequency with which African small holder farmers make the news. This past week they popped up in as diverse places as George Soros’s Open Society and Xinhua, the voice of Chinese authority. Of course, there is some logic to it as African small growers hold in their hands the actual economy, and the future hopes, of the continent.

When we say they hold the actual economy, we mean that the greatest proportion of Africans across so many countries are small growers. Their political positions and preferences must follow their interests. When we say hopes, we mean the aspirations of so many hundreds of millions must have a colossal impact on how politics is played, whether local or national and even whether authoritarian or democratic.

It’s not true, but it often seems that everyone is a farmer in Africa.

You would think, fitting into such a monolithic position in the social and political fabric, that there would be agreement on the ground, and in discussion, on their role. I peruse the press daily (ok, I admit that I search them out) and check out articles and opinions about small growers. I do that because of the interest I found working in African agriculture for more than eighteen years.

Not studying, working. I don’t have a problem with academics and the fruit of research is always important. But working is different as it often requires the kind of engagement that results in commitment and connectedness. When you ask an academic a question and set your research to bring a conclusion, you have a logical construct. When you work together with people and agree to seek common goals, the attainment brings you closer. The results may be less calculable, but they are definitely more satisfying.

I entered into African agriculture from the large-scale agriculture point of view. In the 1990s, I managed a farm in Tanzania that exported vegetables to Europe. For a while, until a completely different kind of African problem took hold, the farm I managed became successful. We sold fresh vegetables to UK supermarkets, shipping them multiple times per week by air. These were intense, highly regulated systems.

To become successful, first we managed chunks of other farms, then we developed a system to oversee other farmers and regulate their operations. We finally found funding for an NGO (basically our own organization because we found the funding) which oversaw village co-ops to grow to the same level of complexity.

And it was a bit complicated. You could only grow the right varieties. They had to be grown to a specific spec. Fertilizer, spray applications and numerous other operations had to be carried out and recorded. There was a system of informing the other parties in between us and the supermarkets to ensure all parts of the chain worked.

The village co-ops and their small farmer members developed their organizations and grew their operations just like the commercial farmers did. These were villagers who were adding a cash crop and the ability to make better money than their usual maize subsistence livelihood.

The point is small growers when they get organized, have a real capacity to go beyond basic subsistence. In the case I was involved with, it was a partnership between big agriculture and subsistence farming that demonstrated to me, categorically, that small growers can do great things given the opportunity.

Later on down the line, I found out that the politics and complexities of the small grower milieu were different and other entities could manipulate and attach your arrangements with much greater immunity than in the word of company law, in which commercial farms operate.

As that farming operation became more successful, we had numerous VIP visitors. I was interested to see politicians and ministers asking pertinent and intelligent questions. They were indeed farmers at heart. But at the same time there was a distinct theme, never specifically expressed, that power could access the land and capability to build such an operation. It seemed to me from my experience, that small farmers had the ability to make progress on many fronts but unfortunately “the powers that be” would always maneuver to get the best of any new deal.