Back to basics: Sustainable smallholder agriculture and the global impact of drought #globaldev

By Kanayo F. Nwanze 

Women of Dan Bako village, Nariama Sayabou and her daughter.
©IFAD/David Rose 
The severe dry spell that is currently parching croplands across the United States is only the latest in a global cycle of increasingly frequent and damaging droughts. These droughts have contributed to multiple food crises in recent years by limiting the supply and driving up the price of staple commodities around the world. Those who suffer the most are poor people – including people in rural areas, where 70 per cent of the world’s poor live.

We at IFAD believe that poor smallholder farmers are the key to feeding the world; they already produce most of the food consumed in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia. Yet when prices spike in times of drought, they may have trouble even feeding themselves.

Rising commodity prices have a major impact on food security at both the household and country levels. Small, import-dependent countries, notably those in Africa, are especially at risk. And even when an immediate crisis passes, it likely won’t be long before the next climate shock or market disruption hits the rural poor – many of whom spend more than half their income on food.

To break this truly vicious cycle, the international community must ratchet up its support for smallholder farmers. It must ensure that they have the tools needed to produce more crops in a more resilient and sustainable manner, and with better links to markets. IFAD has been working towards exactly these ends for over 30 years. If there’s one thing we have learned, it’s that enabling small-scale producers to overcome poverty and attain food security requires a long-term commitment. But the results can be transformative.

Take Zongbega, a village in a drought-prone region of Burkina Faso, which I visited last year. Smallholders there are increasing their drought resilience through simple rainwater harvesting techniques such as planting pits and permeable rock dams. With support from IFAD, they have restored land that was once degraded and have increased their productivity.

Meanwhile, a water harvesting project in the Illela department of Niger is still going strong more than 15 years after funding from IFAD ended. The project encourages farmers to improve traditional planting pits and ‘half-moons’ (semicircular earth embankments) that they use to collect and store rainfall and run-off. The adoption of such simple techniques forces rain – when it does fall – to infiltrate and recharge the groundwater, mitigating the vulnerability of local households in times of drought.

Twenty years ago, the fields around Batodi were completely barren. Today, trees abound, keeping the soil fertile and providing fodder for livestock.

In Burkina Faso, Niger and scores of other countries, IFAD and its partners are working with smallholder farmers to reduce poverty and hunger by going back to basics. IFAD-financed projects promote the integration of smallholders in agricultural value chains. They work to improve crop handling, processing and storage facilities. They foster better interaction among farmers, service providers, traders and agribusiness firms. And they help farmers to manage risk through innovative financial mechanisms as well as support for small producers’ organizations.

Besides emphasizing the basics of sustainable smallholder agriculture, IFAD projects also build on traditional techniques with innovations inspired by the latest scientific research and technology.

IFAD’s experience shows that community-driven agricultural development is most effective when local people are involved from the start. Even amidst the caprices of climate variability and high food prices, poor rural households can control their own destinies. But they need an enabling environment – policies, know-how, finance, rural infrastructure and market access – to advance their efforts and overcome the challenges ahead.

Originally posted on Global Food for Thought

Kanayo F. Nwanze is President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), a United Nations agency that specializes in reducing rural poverty.