Africa: The World Must Learn From Smallholder Farmers

As Africa's Sahel region faces a new food crisis, smallholder famers hold the key to making future development policies sustainable.

That is why it "is just impossible to speak about sustainability" at the Rio+20 conference next month without listening to what smallholder farmers have to say, says Mohamed Beavogui, head of the International Fund for Agricultural Development's Partnership and Resource Mobilisation Office.

Some 18 million people in the Sahel region are at risk of food insecurity and malnutrition, warns the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

Recurring droughts, environmental degradation and high grain prices accompanied by decreasing migrant remittances, as well as displacement and chronic poverty are creating a situation that has resulted among others things in a 26-percent decline in cereal production compared to 2011. Finding long-lasting solutions is pivotal in this context, said Beavogui.

And these solutions are already there, developed by smallholder farmers over centuries.

Promises were made by the G8 group of wealthy donor nations to scale up international agriculture-related foreign aid, especially in Africa, but they remain unfulfilled.

Speaking with U.N. Correspondent Rousbeh Legatis, Mohammad Beavogui laid out what the world can learn from smallholder farmers to promote sustainable agriculture as a key element of future sustainable development.

Excerpts from the interview follow.

Regions like the Sahel seem to be hit by famine every few years, often for predictable reasons. What structural changes can be made to break this cycle?

Firstly, we should invest in providing targeted communities with greater capacity to implement self-help activities in response to production shortfalls, as well as more effectively coordinate and implement governmental and international relief activities.

Secondly, we have been learning that in areas where attempts were made to build long-lasting sustainable approaches like re-greening of land, solving the issues of water availability, drip irrigation, bounds, the adverse effects of droughts have been less than in areas where this kind of work has not been undertaken.

But this means what? It means that we should work all together. Governments should encourage the right policies that allow to have the right inputs, particularly drought-resistant seeds, as well as policies that allow good extension services to be adopted and easy access - particularly for women and young people.

We should furthermore invest in better roads to allow the transportation of food from the high production zones to the deficit zones.

IFAD has supported organic farming pilot projects, such as among cocoa producers in Sao Tome, as a way to leverage higher-paying markets. Are these kinds of markets - organic, fair trade - expanding, and do they offer an opportunity for public-private partnerships that really benefit small farmers? A: Yes, it is a very good way to contribute to the creation of wealth for the rural smallholder farmers.

We have had very successful experiences in Sao-Tomé, Sierra Leone, Uganda and in many other places in Latin America and so on.

But what have we learned? What are the success factors in order to get there? When I say "there" I mean the situation whereby the farmer is getting the fair price on its product, increasing his or her income in a very respectable manner and the partner, the private company, is also satisfied that it is making money. Because that is the reality: it is about making money, but in a fair manner.

So the first success factor is that we should think long-term. We should work with real private sector professionals, partners, committed also to development, to just human beings. Besides business and trade, fundamental to this is that we need some kind of ethical approach to the work. So in short, we need genuine commitment from everyone.

The second success factor is that we need to work through organised producers to ensure a critical mass. Allowing to have, firstly, the size for delivery and, secondly, minimised processing and marketing costs.

Thirdly, we need to ensure quality to have good access to markets and good prices and we need to optimise logistics to reduce cost again, as well as an easy transfer of knowhow and good practices.

Gender equality is a priority for IFAD. Are governments giving women, especially young and rural women, the attention and support they deserve?

I think we have a long way to go in that area for the time being. Policies are changing. If you look at what is happening now in Africa, the new constitutions are giving more and more space to women. You look at the governments, you are having more and more women getting to high-level positions, women are getting also better positions in different corporations.

The issue where I think there is a lot of work to do yet and which need a bigger push is really women in the rural areas.

In the documentation, there is a lot of talk about how do we help women, but when you go into actual activities, you will see that the extension service for agriculture is geared very frequently towards men. That issues like land are first devoted to men. So, that is where we have to work and to continue supporting.

Women in Africa particularly are the ones who produce food, who process and market food. Commodities are dealt with by men, but food is the responsibility of women. So, in IFAD we have been investing a lot in this area. The major partners in our programmes are women first and young women also.

There is a growing recognition that sustainable agriculture is central to sustainable human development. What do you hope could be accomplished at the Rio+20 summit in this regard?

What we as IFAD are pushing is that you cannot build sustainability without involving the main actors. We have about two billion smallholder farmers around the world. These people are working on the lands we have every day, they are dealing with our waters, with our forests, with our livestock, they are in fact dealing with our nature.

So it is just impossible to speak about sustainability of our environment without really involving these people.

They can help us to have a sustainable agriculture; an agriculture that allows us to produce enough food and in the same time to preserve our environment, our nature.

Smallholder farmers are dealing with our local knowledge. They are good managers of risks, have a very good experiences and solutions in terms of alternative responses to droughts, floods etc.

Sometimes, if you look at these farms you will see that he or she plants different types of species to manage the risk. One (plant) will respond to droughts, in case there are droughts, and you have others who would respond to floods, and if there is a flood, that production will survive. So they have this type of responses that are extremely efficient. So we have a lot to learn from them.

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