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African Agriculture in 50 years: Smallholders in a Rapidly Changing World?

Author: Paul Collier and Stefan Dercon
Organisation: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
Publish Date: August 2009
Country: Africa
Sector: Agriculture
Method: Foresight
Theme: Futures
Type: Other publication
Language: English
Tags: Agriculture, superfarms, smallholder agriculture

For economic development to succeed in Africa in the next 50 years, African agriculture will have to change beyond recognition. Production will have to have increased massively, but also labour productivity, requiring a vast reduction in the proportion of the population engaged in agriculture and a large move out of rural areas. Climate change is likely to require an acceleration of this process, with commensurate faster and further migration of large populations. In this paper, we ask how this can be squared with a continuing commitment to smallholder agriculture as the main route for growth in African agriculture and for poverty reduction. We question the evidence base for an exclusive focus on smallholders, and argue for a much more open-minded approach to different modes of production. Smallholders are heterogeneous and there is scope for large scale farmers as commercial enterprises, often in interaction with smaller scale farmers using institutional frameworks that encourage vertical integration and scale economies in processing and marketing. Furthermore, we question the case for smallholders as engines for growth and poverty reduction. The evidence is far more mixed than the exclusive emphasis upon the smallholder approach would lead us to believe. Indeed, much of the focus on smallholders may actually hinder large scale poverty reduction. Fast labour productivity growth is what is needed for large scale productivity reduction but smallholders and the institutions to support and sustain them are weak agents for labour productivity growth in Africa. The current policy focus ignores one key necessity for labour productivity growth: successful migration out of agriculture and rural areas. In the final part of the paper, we consider the recent African vogue for ‘superfarms’: the emergence of investments in vast tracks of land of thousands of hectares for food crop agriculture focused on exports, such as to the Middle East. We argue that, while commercialization of African agriculture is desirable, the superfarms are fundamentally geopolitical rather than commercial and are not an appropriate vehicle for encouraging growth in African societies.
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