Medium-sized, mixed family farms to feed the future

Food Security,Inclusive Economy14 Apr 2015Melle Leenstra

A vision for farming in Africa

Agricultural development programmes have too long focused on semi-subsistence smallholders in an effort to achieve food security. We have to aim instead for an agricultural sector based on medium-sized, mixed family farms that contribute to the African green revolution, sorely needed to feed the future.

On June 22, 2015 Rabobank together with FoodFirst, Cordaid and the Dutch Ministries of Foreign and Economic Affairs will host a conference in the Netherlands on the future of farming and food security in Africa. Farming is an appropriate topic in view of the food security challenges the world is facing. Finally this focuses our attention on the men and women who feed us rather than dwelling only on technology or the market. Our collective future depends on farming.

Poor and vulnerable smallholder farmers will not feed the world

The green revolution in Africa has failed once, and might fail again, because policy makers and researchers have been unsuccessful in understanding the social reality of farming in Africa. Farmers have been treated as objects for technology adoption, the market, policy or charity 1. Instead they are the actors who should drive this green revolution if we ever want to sustainably feed an ever larger and more prosperous world population.

For too long agricultural development efforts have targeted semi-subsistence smallholders, while policy makers and practitioners have stressed their poverty and vulnerability. This has reinforced the perception among our African friends that farming is not a profession to aspire to, but rather a part-time, pastime income generating activity.

Let’s be honest about smallholders. They have done great things for Africa. There will be very few African doctors, bankers or lawyers that have not been educated thanks to the efforts of smallholders over the last one or two generations. They have generated income and foreign exchange used to construct buildings and fill roads with cars, allowing African cities to evoke impressions of ‘Africa Rising’.

At the same, the income generating livelihood diversification strategies that smallholders have used to survive, manage risks and allow their children to do better, are preventing smallholdings from being actual enterprises. Too few smallholders re-invest into their farms, which is essential for farming as a business. Also, as the time spent on farming competes with time spent working off farm, labour is a constraint constant. This keeps farmers engaged in low input, low output farming strategies which contribute to nutrient mining: depleting theirs soils. To add to this sense of impending doom, inheritance practices continuously fragment available farmland. Soon, average plot sizes in much of Africa will be too small to make a decent living.

If we want to avoid a scenario of deepened rural poverty, degraded natural resources, urban hunger and social strife, we have to change our vision of farming in Africa.

Large scale corporate farming won’t save us either

This has inspired some people to advocate large scale corporate farming. But that is not a sustainable answer for encouraging growth in African societies either, as also argued in this paper. Across Africa, large tracts of land are reserved for local politicians-businessmen, or for foreign companies to engage in farming. While there are differences in the corporate social responsibility of such agricultural investors, and many do contribute to gainful employment, this may conflict with perceptions – rightly or wrongly – that this infringes on the rights of indigenous Africans. However, there are also economic and ecological concerns about large scale corporate farming. Such farms tend towards high-input monocultures which are not ecologically sustainable. In addition, such farms are not economically optimal in view of diminishing returns to scale.

Medium-sized mixed family farms as sustainable entrepreneurial food security agents

A better answer is to foster the ‘missing middle’ between peasants and plantations.

I strongly believe that medium-sized, mixed family farms producing for the market are the only sustainable answer for food security in Africa. Medium-sized family farms, in which animal production is linked to crop rotation and good trees, are more likely to have optimal returns to scale. Integrated, mixed farming is important. Making informed decisions on crop varieties, rotation schedules and animal husbandry systems that in combination make agricultural and marketing sense will make farmers more resilient to climatic and market shocks. This allows for integrated soil fertility management by re-using plant and animal waste to close the nutrient cycle. This means taking good care of the soils and being less vulnerable to pests and diseases, thus needing less pesticides or chemical fertilizers.

The essential part of this vision is the family farm. Family farms have the potential to capture the strengths and the contributions that fathers, mothers and the youth can bring to creating a dynamic yet sustainable farm. Men, at times, are overconfident risk takers, more interested in publicly presenting what their farm is or can be, rather than sweating to realize their vision. Mothers, on the other hand, have shown to be more interested in getting things done and taken care of. Women, however, can have the tendency to be too modest to see and seize their potential. The combination of these family members – a true joint venture – will bring the best of both worlds. Youth should be involved in the family farm, not only because they are tech-savvy, but as part of succession planning. Family farms should groom one successor to take over the business, when parents retire.

It is a tragedy nowadays that farms are ripped apart in inheritances. It seems as if everyone in Africa wants to own land and nobody wants to be a farmer. That must change.

Towards a joint vision and collective action

To achieve this vision I don’t propose leaving smallholders behind. Smallholders are the current reality. I hope to convince them to buy into this vision and strive to achieve it. By using the cash-flow generated by farming (rather than focusing only on loans) to constantly invest and reinvest into their farms, they could achieve this vision. By constantly investing in increasing productivity and profitability, by optimizing their production and marketing processes and by leasing or buying land to increase their scale they could graduate from being smallholders.

It is also essential to work together. For too long, people have taken advantage of African farmers. This is true for political cooperatives, government marketing boards, exploitative middle men, paternalistic NGOs or unscrupulous multinationals. This has created a deficit in social capital, i.e., trust. Only by working together and with inclusive agri-businesses and responsible service providers, will farmers manage to assert themselves, effectively negotiate and become market players rather than victims of market forces.

But let us also look, beyond smallholders, at other farmers to work with. There are African farmers that have land that has not yet been sub-divided into uneconomic units, but they have long been ignored. Medium-sized and larger indigenous farmers have often been seen as elites who can take care of themselves. By giving these farmers access to practical training and appropriate advice, we can unlock their potential, as this project of the Equity Bank Group and the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Kenya aims to accomplish.

There are also farmers whom Kenyans call ‘Telephone Farmers’. These are urban professionals with access to land and money to invest in farming. Such farmers also provide entry points for supporting farming as a business. If such farmers will see their farms become sustainably profitable, perhaps they can take the decision to either go into farming full-time or otherwise leave farming to focused agricultural professionals.

Farming and farmers should be given back the dignity they deserve. That is why I want to share this vision with partners and stakeholders. Together, convinced of this vision, we can kick-start agriculture as the engine for African growth and prosperity. Let us focus the efforts of policy makers, researchers and practitioners to do just that, just like SNV, Solidaridad, the Equity Group Foundation, the Netherlands Embassy in Kenya, Dutch and Kenyan agri-businesses, and Wageningen UR are trying to do in Kenya.

It is farmers who will feed the future. Let us treat farming in Africa as a vocation. Only then will we be able to make use of the technology of today and tomorrow to sustainably feed Africa and the world.

This article was originally published on the The Food & Business Knowledge website on 26 March 2015


  1. I argued this point more comprehensively in Leenstra (2014) From Suitcase Farmers to Telephone Farmers.