Africa's small farmers - a change of thinking

by Mohamed Beavogui

As an African but also a development practitioner, I've seen a lot of good ideas and best intentions left broken and long forgotten in farmers' fields.

In so many cases, the reason is simple. One idea, one piece of technology on its own seldom addresses the multiplicity of problems facing the average smallholder farmer struggling to make a living on a small patch of land in a remote corner of his or her country. Yet too often, that's exactly what people look for - an easy fix or a single solution.

In my experience, both in the field and now as the Director of the Western and Central Africa Division at IFAD, what makes a real difference is something more fundamental - it's how we look at Africa's smallholder farmers.

Do we see them as victims - poverty stricken women and men trapped in cycles of subsistence farming - or as potential entrepreneurs struggling to run small businesses in places were basic tools such as finance, technology, training and access to markets are unavailable? It's my belief that we need a paradigm shift in the way we think - one that takes us away from old ideas of African agriculture which rely on basic farming practices and on government and donor handouts and, instead, focuses on creating a vibrant rural economy built on establishing the right business environment for small farmers.

A woman I know in Ghana is a perfect example of what I'm talking about. Her name is Faustina Sayki. She runs a successful cassava processing centre in a small rural town. She employs 34 women and produces about 30 tonnes of cassava flour, known as gari, a week. Her customers are in the US, UK, Nigeria and Mali. She also extracts starch from cassava and sells it to local textile and pharmaceutical factories. Many describe her as a national success story.

So how did a poor cassava farmer in a remote community build a successful cassava-processing factory? A business environment was created that gave her a chance, that's how.

Through the IFAD-supported Roots and Tubers Project Improvement and Marketing Programme she received support she needed to respond directly to market opportunities. For example, she received training that helped her strengthen her entrepreneurial skills and business savvy; and she had access to expert research and adapted technologies that helped her improve her factory's efficiency and produce a higher quality and quantity of gari.

With a sound business plan and a savings history, she was able to access private equity from a rural bank. Together, these things enabled Faustina to enter the market with a well-priced, reliable, high-quality product that is now in demand. Her story suggests what's possible once we put away old notions and start looking at small farming in Africa as a business opportunity.

Originally posted on World Challenge blog