Industrialising African agriculture to help the poor? Some myths exposed


08 February 2016

A farming revolution is being driven in Africa and is affecting the lives of hundreds of millions of rural African families. A magic formula has been devised with ambitions to modernise their agriculture, raise their incomes, develop their countries’ economies and (so the logic goes) to eliminate their hunger and poverty. For farmers this ‘green revolution’ involves taking a leap of faith from traditional methods to using seeds and chemical fertilisers provided by multinationals like Monsanto to feed urban and international markets. Those who fund and implement these innovations claim them as great successes and seek to spread the model further and wider. But the risks are high for poor farming families and, in countries like Rwanda where farmers are forced to comply, the numbers overlook considerable harms imposed on the poor. These strategies require careful scrutiny.

A team from the School of International Development at the University of East Anglia has published research exposing some of the overlooked impacts of such policies in Rwanda. The study reveals more precisely what type of revolution is being enacted. We spent many months talking to villagers in three mountainous areas in western Rwanda to hear about changes in their lives. Their testimonies were compelling. Policies have been deemed great successes by the Rwandan government, economists at the IMF and beyond, but local experiences told a very different story.

The agricultural policies were transforming people’s lives, but negatively so for the poorest. In this region farmers traditionally cultivate up to 60 different crops, planting and harvesting in overlapping cycles to avoid shortages and hunger. The mix of crops changes with subtle differences in soil, slope and altitude. Trade and patterns of labour follow these gradients and each day droves of villagers take sugar cane uphill to trade for potatoes, or labourers head to an area knowing there are crops to be harvested. But these practices have been labelled as “archaic” under the new policies. High population density has been used to justify drastic change, and crop specialisation has been imposed and enforced through a system of fines. The longstanding knowledge of soils and ecological gradients has, in a flash, been replaced with rules and administrative boundaries. And if people don’t comply they are threatened with seeing their land reallocated to someone wealthier who will.

"We are told to grow things that aren’t suitable to grow here. When we try to grow things that are suitable we are punished for it. Like sweet potatoes and bananas – they don’t grow really well but at least we can harvest something. But now we are told to grow corn and it simply doesn’t grow in our soil. Also preventing us mixing crops has caused difficulty because we used to be able to harvest others when one crop failed. The effect of that policy is starvation and an increase in prices at market. We can’t do anything to cope with this, there is no choice. We have to follow policies and regulations."

Taking part in the new scheme is not easy. Modern seeds cannot be used without fertiliser, for which people need to take credit. That requires the confidence to be able to pay money back at the end of the season and to manage to feed your family in the meantime. Only a relatively wealthy minority have been able to adhere because the poorest farmers cannot afford the risk. Fears of harvesting nothing from new crops (which are often vulnerable to extreme weather) and the potential for government to seize and reallocate land means many choose to sell up instead.

"Now we try to use the little manure we have but manure on its own doesn’t really help much. We can’t afford any chemical fertilisers for the land. Fertiliser can be given to people who might be able to pay it back afterwards, but we aren’t trusted to be able to do that because we are poor."

Instead of helping the poorest, policies appear to be exacerbating landlessness and inequality for poorer rural inhabitants. Overall the policies may increase production of those few crops because wealthier farmers buy up land and use the seeds and chemicals. Yet for many of the poorest smallholders they strip them of their main productive resource: land. And that can have devastating effects. Chronic poverty is already common in these areas: The main employment is agricultural labour, breaking up red clay soils with a poorly-made hoe commonly earns the equivalent of just 50 pence (about US75cents) for a whole day’s work. That is less than 100th of the minimum wage in the UK and buys very little food even in Rwandan markets. Therefore people depend on the food they are able to grow on their small plots or go to sleep hungry. People are accustomed to scarcity: villagers spoke of teaching their children to clench their fists at night to stave off hunger as they struggle to sleep.

"Imagine to work for $1 a day when you have a family of 5 to share the money between. We work like donkeys and get a pittance that doesn’t even allow us enough to eat to recover the energy we have used!"

So what are the alternatives? Farming is central to people’s existence but in the face of limited land and soil degradation it is a constant struggle. So innovation and support which listens to, targets their needs and involves their participation is needed and has potential to help the poorest. Land access schemes, support for suitable inputs, pro-poor co-operatives, agro-forestry, soil conservation, permaculture or marketing schemes aimed at widening the available choices of the poorest could all help their situation. The single-minded, imposed model dominating agricultural development in Africa eclipses these options, benefits the few and has drastic impacts for the rural poor.

The widespread multinational and donor-backed strategy to modernise African agriculture is transforming African farming. The assumption that this strategy is helping poor farmers and directly reducing hunger is an assumption, a myth and one that needs to be exposed. Similar results are emerging from other experiments in Malawi, Kenya, Mozambique and beyond. It is not enough to assume that improvements in the national economy will trickle-down to the poor. It is startling that the impacts of policies with such far-reaching effects for such poor people are so inadequately assessed, and crucial these impacts are brought to the fore rather than buried in convenient statistics. These strategies need to be adapted to mitigate against those impacts, to respect traditional knowledge and provide choices to the poor. Ultimately, to reduce poverty and hunger through farming innovation in Africa requires working with the poor farmers, not against them.

Photo: Neil Dawson / Small scale farming in Rwanda

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