Recently, I was on a road in the Southern Choma District of Zambia to meet with Rosemary Pisani, a smallholder farmer and mother of eight who struggled to feed her children prior to joining a farmer’s cooperative to raise goats. Thanks to the cooperative and support from other farmers, she now has a thriving business and all of her children are in school.
On the way to meet her, I passed women walking through mud to the market with large loads of fruit and vegetables stacked on their heads. I imagined how I might be on my way to a very different rural community if the road we were on was paved and well maintained.
Often in Africa, the few paved roads that do exist are littered with potholes and lead to unpaved ones that are nearly impossible to navigate without a proper vehicle. Closer to farming communities, roads disappear entirely. This leaves rural areas, which have the potential to feed the more than one billion hungry people, cut off and isolated. In sub-Saharan Africa, almost 70% of all people living in rural areas live more than a 30-minute walk from the nearest maintained road.
Kofi Annan, Chairperson of the Board of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), has acknowledged this isolation: “The average African smallholding farmer swims alone. She has no insurance against erratic weather patterns, gets no subsidies, and has no access to credit. I say ‘she’ because the majority of small-scale farmers in Africa are women.” Indeed, half of the world’s smallholders are women, and we must keep in mind their punishing task of walking long lengths to get their produce to market.
At the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), we believe that farming, regardless of size or scale, must be seen as a business, and smallholder farmers as small-scale business owners rather than poor people who need handouts. There is growing recognition that these smallholder farmers and their rural communities are a major part of the solution to food insecurity and poverty – but only if they have what they need to do their jobs.
The Green Revolution of the last century had a tremendous impact on agricultural yields and food production, transforming the lives of millions of people. Much of this success stemmed from infrastructure that was already in place. India’s road density at the start of its Green Revolution in the 1970’s was 388 kilometers per 1,000 square kilometres. This compares with 39 kilometers per 1,000 square kilometers in Ethiopia today and 71 per 1,000 in Senegal.
New roads bring other essential services to rural communities. In Ethiopia, only 2% of rural people have access to electricity, and telephone communication is more or less absent. Researchers believe that this is because only 17% of rural communities in the country live within one mile of a paved road.
Together with poor infrastructure, many small farmers in Africa have insufficient access to productive assets, such as land, water, and new technologies. As a result, yields are generally too low to allow the millions of rural households to generate marketable surpluses. Even if smallholders are able to produce a surplus, their lack of access to downstream activities, such as processing and marketing, prevents them from selling it easily.
The cause of these missing, but vital, resources lies in the shameful neglect of agriculture in the past two decades. Both developed and developing countries – caught up in rapid economic expansion and technological development – got distracted. They turned off the tap to agriculture, leaving small farmers to rely on basic farming practices and on government and donor handouts.
That tap must be turned back on. In IFAD’s experience, working simply to double the income of a smallholder farmer who scrapes by on less than a dollar a day is poverty management, because at two dollars a day, he or she still remains poor. But supporting that smallholder in launching a farming business that could generate a five-fold increase in income amounts to poverty eradication.
If smallholder farmers are to be given the opportunity to become viable businesses, it is essential that they be connected to markets. Indeed, support for rural infrastructure – including last-mile roads, electrification, post-harvest facilities, support for agricultural associations and cooperatives, and access to land and irrigation facilities – is a crucial element in the value chain.
Each link in the value chain, from the smallholder to the local trade agents and agro-processors to regional and national markets, needs to be strengthened. We need to link food producers with the people who need their product through viable and well maintained infrastructure. In addition, we need to provide them with research and technology to ensure that they can grow the best-quality produce, and storage capabilities so that they can sell at peak prices.
If smallholder farmers have the basic infrastructure they need to get their goods to market, they will not only be able to feed themselves and their communities, but will contribute to wider food security. We just need to put the pavement down so that farmers like those I saw in Zambia can more easily make their way on the road to food security.