11 December 2012

Africa: UN Official Calls for Boost to Smallholder Farming

Photo: David Njagi/AllAfrica
A livestock farmer on his farm in Dagoretti, Kenya.

The African Green Revolution Forum held earlier this year in Arusha, Tanzania, aimed to put smallholder farmers at the center of the conversation about improving agricultural productivity in Africa. AllAfrica's Samantha Nkirote McKenzie spoke to Maria Helena Semedo, the Food and Agriculture Organisation's assistant director-general and regional representative for Africa, to discuss her views on the role of smallholder farmers and what key commitments and actions she hopes to see in the near future that will increase their productivity.

Can you explain your work for us?

We provide technical support in delivering and improving agriculture development, technical support policy guidance to the governments and we work very close with the farmers. We work with regions and sub-regions, continental organisations such as the African Union, and regional economic communities depending on the sub-region. The ultimate goal of our work is improve the livelihoods of the farmers and to reduce hunger and poverty.

There has been increased focus on smallholder farmers. But some say greater focus should be aimed on feeding the continent through large-scale farming and increased productivity.

They are already feeding us in the African continent. Around 60 percent, or two-thirds, of Africa's work labour is from the smallholders. What we are discussing is how they can be more productive, increase productivity, be linked to market, access innovation and technology. What is happening now is they are more supply-driven and not demand-driven and the agri-foods system is changing. We have the urban, the middle class, the poor, but they have different demands. How can we really integrate them to be more demand-driven and how can they can integrate this market in a profitable way? What we are seeing is they cannot access finance. Why? Because they're not profitable...and this is another way for them to be in an inclusive, profitable process.

You say one of your aims is to iprove livelihoods and reduce hunger and poverty. That said, even if more food was produced, it's not always the quantity that matters, it's the type of food. Is that something that the FAO is focusing on in terms of the technical support or working with governments?

Yes. When we speak about the type of food one of the questions is quality. We cannot sell if we do not have the standard quality. The FAO with the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme are working with them to improve quality and adhere to standards already defined for the food and production. Another thing is how they can improve productivity. When we have to feed a population, which will be doubling and the demand will be double, we have to increase yields: the appropriate seeds, the use of fertilizer, access to credit. These are the inputs the FAO is working with them on.

In working with governments is there a challenge in getting them to commit and to actually provide what they say they'll provide?

I say it's time for us to move towards action. We have a lot of initiatives going on and when we have these initiatives we are not focused and we are not moving to implement. We have to become results-oriented ... and vision should be behind what we are doing.

On the donor side they are coming with a lot of initiatives and sometimes the government has to take advantage of these initiatives, and we are always starting and restarting again instead of moving forward with what we have already agreed upon.

It has been said that now is the tipping point, now is the time to act. What kind of action do you hope to see?

I think one will be political commitment. We have been speaking a lot about political commitment - political commitment to move forward. To support the smallholder farmers in a way that can be an inclusive process, a profitable process and in a sustainable way. But we cannot start with action and stop because it is a long journey. Another issue is how we can reduce the gender gap to do all these things. Women - they are essential and they have to be empowered to be part of this process.

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