Reaching food security means reaching out to smallholders

By Kanayo F. Nwanze, IFAD President

Agriculture is at the centre of a nexus of pressing issues - poverty, hunger, climate change, environmental degradation, conflict - and the smallholder farmer is at the centre of agricultural development. As we work towards a consensus on a new agricultural agenda, we must not lose sight of this fact. Coming in swift
succession, the meetings of the G8, G20 and the Rio +20 conference offer a unique opportunity to capitalise on the growing recognition that agricultural development is the key to a sustainable future. Small farmers not only need to be a focus of any new agreements; they need to have a role in framing them.

Agriculture is essential both to food security and to poverty reduction. Consider that growth generated by agriculture is at least twice as effective in reducing poverty as growth in other sectors. And with at least 70
percent of the world’s poorest people living in the rural areas of developing countries, whether we succeed or fail in our efforts to feed the world and rid it of poverty will largely depend on reaching the people who work the world’s 500 million small farms, many of whom are women.

No new agricultural agenda can ignore the importance of empowering women. In developing countries, 43% of the farmers are women, yet their performance is hampered by deeply unequal access to services and resources - such as credit, extension and improved seeds and fertiliser. And more importantly, they often do not have title rights to the land they farm. It has been estimated that if women had the same access to resources as men, they could increase yields on their farms by 20–30%. Closing this gender gap would lift 150 million people out of hunger.

To transform our lives we need modern equipment, water, electricity, telephone… and why not internet?

A new vision
It has long been apparent that there needs to be a second Green Revolution for the 21st century, with a more modulated approach. Today’s world is very different from the one in which the original Green Revolution was launched. Confronting climate change, an environment that is in many places seriously
degraded, and a population that is expected to top 9 billion people by 2050, what we need now is not ‘more of the same’. In moving ahead, we have to make sure we are not looking backward.

An approach relying heavily on inputs and energy will not succeed in the long run. We need to think differently if we are to achieve both environmental sustainability and sustainability over time. We need a
sustainable agricultural intensification agenda that can deliver not only greater productivity but also greater sustainability, resilience to shocks, decent incomes and jobs - particularly for rural youth - and greater nutritional value.

Smallholder agriculture is central to the success of this agenda on all fronts. In addition to increasing agricultural investment, we need to improve such investment. That means bringing together public and private investors in pursuit of the same goals, and making sure that the centrality of smallholders as the main
providers of on-farm private investment is recognised and supported first and foremost.

We will also need to ensure that interventions reach deep into rural areas. The benefits of research, such as improved seeds and drought-tolerant varieties, as well as market information and technologies, will need to be available on the most modest farm in the most remote location.

Farmers are not just recipients of assistance; they are our most important partners, whose involvement and
perspective is critical. During a recent visit to Cameroon, one young farmer, Susanne Nke, told me that “The rural women of our villages must really reach full autonomy. The arduous nature of their work must be reduced. We want to move from the hoe to the tractor.

If we want to engage the youth of today in agricultural development - which is critical to food security tomorrow - we need to listen to them. We should take note of how Susanne cogently articulates the links between equality and social justice, technological innovation, free exchange of information, and
social transformation. And clearly, agricultural development means building strong communities as well as livelihoods.

Connecting smallholder farmers to markets
Private sector partnerships are now widely seen as crucial to agricultural growth and the reduction of rural poverty. We should remember that smallholder farmers are already part of the private sector. Every farm,
no matter how small, is a business. And smallholder farmers are themselves the biggest investors in agriculture in developing countries.

However, these farmers face a number of hurdles in improving their efficiency, productivity and livelihoods. Many of these centre around access - access to markets, to technology, to credit, to the benefits of
innovation and research, to land, to water, and to information. Gender inequalities make access all the more challenging for women farmers, though they make up a large percentage of smallholder farmers and
are typically the most direct providers of food security at the household level.

When rural small farmers are connected to markets, they can sell more and better quality food at higher prices, eat a more diversified diet, and improve household food security and nutrition. With increased income they can pay for essential medicines, send their children to school and improve their lives. Belonging to an organised farmers’ group allows smallholder farmers to bulk produce, reduce costs through economies
of scale and, perhaps most importantly, to strengthen their bargaining power in the value chain, often dominated by powerful private-sector actors. Gender equality is important here as well, in the composition of farmers’ organisations and women farmers’ own ability to organise effectively.

Recognising small farmers and their organizations as primary stakeholders in development means more than paying lip service to them in global meetings. Truly acting upon this recognition requires genuine collaboration and inclusive processes, which cannot be an afterthought but need to start from the very design of programmes and continue through to evaluation.

In Guatemala, an IFAD supported project has helped a producers’ association in El Quiché buy irrigation equipment, build a new storage facility and work with the private sector to bring their produce to new markets. By engaging with private sector partners, they have seen a three-fold increase in productivity, and today these farmers sell to some of the biggest retailers in the world, including retailers in the United States.

There is no single solution that will allow small farmers to respond to the various challenges they face. But our experience has shown that targeted interventions that address the particular spectrum of issues faced by rural communities and that give smallholders a stake in the process are the most practical and cost-effective way to further agricultural development and improve the lives of rural people. The power of smallholders in ensuring food security and eradicating poverty is a reality that world leaders in Camp David, Mexico City and Rio cannot afford to ignore.

Originally published by Intrinsic Communications