Watering the Shoots of Smallholder Agriculture

Anthea Choo is a final year BSc Economics student at the London School of Economics (LSE) in the UK. She is a former intern at Social Enterprise Associates, spurred by her interests in development economics, microfinance and empowerment of women.

Modernizing smallholder agriculture has been on the agenda of many development organizations such as USAID, the World Bank, UK Hunger Alliance, and ActionAid over the last decade. Smallholder farming has been touted as a powerful tool in reducing under-nutrition and boosting food security in the developing world, causing much ink to be spilt in constructing frameworks and approaches for its implementation. What might some of the limitations to these frameworks be? Can various perspectives be combined to yield the best results to propel SHF forward?

Last Fall, Business Fights Poverty hosted a discussion entitled aimed at analyzing the World Bank's newly released Benchmarking the Business of Agriculture (BBA) framework. The lively online discourse, led by Alison Griffith of Practical Action and George McAllister of Garden Africa, put forth several suggestions from the African Smallholder Farmers Group.

The framework hopes to drive commercial success in small-scale farming by combining cross-country benchmarking and existing Agribusiness Indicators. However, as pointed out by the African Smallholder Farmers Group, it unfortunately excludes the following key developmental elements:

Producer Organizations
Producer organizations, formed by the farmers and enabled by government policies, will help smallholder farms benefit from economies of scale and thus lower high transaction and input costs. However, a worrying concern is that they potentially run against the interests of large agribusinesses.

The panel pointed out that an environment that would allow skilled and interested smallholder farms to scale up requires rural infrastructure, rural public services and rural investment in addition to land/water/markets access, credit, research and extension services, etc. Yet, Voluntary Guidelines on land tenures have not been fully incorporated into the World Bank framework and continue to hamper its adoption as a global framework.

Women's Rights
The panel also argued that because women often lack formally recognized ownership/secure tenure of land they farm (leaving them without collateral for capital or labor investment), gender issues cannot be excluded from the framework.

Besides critically assessing the content of the Business of Agriculture report, the discussion also broached the topic of the methodology used by the World Bank. Specifically, the World Bank adopted a deep dive examination approach in analyzing the broad range of measures and factors that affect agricultural productivity, market access, and the policy environment for agriculture.

The online discussion concurred that heeding the results of the "Doing Business" Review, benchmarking was preferable over ranking in the report because ranking imposes pressure on countries to accept ranking information as objective truth, and should be avoided. However, the panel agreed on the difficulties of benchmarking: (1) contextualizing best practices; (2) choosing the right methodologies; and (3) facing resistance to change in the domain of users who use the World Bank frameworks.

A noteworthy point revolved around the fact that besides focusing on what is now flawed in agri-systems, it is also important to note success stories. Inclusive business policies encourage companies to enter low-income markets and empower poor people to engage with these companies. In addition, voucher schemes, insurance, and using success stories as case studies were amongst other suggestions brought up by the discussion.

Improving smallholder farms has much potential in the war against poverty, and it is encouraging to see that improving the success rate of smallholder farms has the attention of the international development community.


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