The role of smallholder farmers has come under the spotlight in South Africa as the country navigates the tricky process of land reform. Smallholder farming is billed as the main avenue through which emerging black farmers are likely to grow their share of the country's agricultural economic activity.
But South Africa's smallholder farmers face major obstacles. Most of these originate from a lack of financial muscle, knowledge and networks. There has been growing evidence from across the African continent that organising smallholder farmers into groups helps them overcome some of these challenges. Examples include farmer groups among vegetable growers in Freetown, Sierra Leone, frankincense cooperatives in Tigray, Ethiopia and potato farmer groups in Malawi, which have boosted poor farmers' success by sharing costs and facilitating access to relevant, contextual information.
Our study adds to this body of evidence. It looked at fertiliser use trends among South African smallholder farmers who were organised into groups versus those who were not.
We found that smallholder farmers in South Africa use fewer fertilisers than they should. This is partly because they don't know which fertilisers suit their specific soils. But more importantly they lack the resources to buy and transport the fertilisers to their farming areas, which are often far from major centres on impassable roads.
Our findings suggest that organising farmers into groups can help to tackle these issues, modernise farming and improve smallholders' incomes.
But not all smallholder farmer groups work well. In South Africa many are consumed by leadership tensions, corruption and toxic relations and become dysfunctional. It is critical to ensure that smallholder farming groups are run democratically and by the farmers themselves, with less interference from outsiders.
More positives than negatives
In South Africa many farmer groups have been formed because government, NGOs and other rural development agencies prefer to work with groups instead of individual farming households. This makes it easier to reach and support more people at the same time.
But many problems have been reported in these groups. Some of the challenges include infighting among the group members, and faults with group leadership or management.
Most of these criticisms are justified. But our work on the role of farmer groups and fertiliser use and poverty reduction suggests that these groups have some positive aspects and the model should continue.
We found that the information and cost sharing, as well as the bulk-buying power associated with such groups, can drive an increase in the use of modern technologies like inorganic fertilisers. That results in better crop yields and incomes.
We compared fertiliser use between group members and farmers who weren't in groups across four districts in the KwaZulu-Natal province. Group members were more likely to use fertilisers and so produced better crops.
We also found that group members tended to earn higher incomes than those who didn't belong to groups.
But the benefits of group membership did not equally accrue to all members. Socio-economic characteristics played a role. For example, wealthier farmers - presumably because of their social standing and influence in the groups - saw more benefits. Interestingly, we found that farmers without an education benefited more from groups than those who were educated. Given that most smallholders have modest education levels, the sharing of information, presumably in local languages, allows members to clarify the nature and benefits of the technologies to each other.
Our findings suggest that access to relevant information is key in motivating smallholders to improve their usual farming practices. Smallholder farming methods are largely rudimentary, learned through trial and error. Farming can be enhanced by adopting and adapting modern practices like using chemical fertilisers and hybrid seeds.
Autonomy is key
One concern was that richer members benefited more in groups than their poorer peers. This suggested that farmer groups, like many interventions in rural areas, can easily be captured by elites at the expense of the poor and disadvantaged.
Work is needed to reduce internal disputes among groups that could render them dysfunctional, and to ensure these groups can work in pro-poor ways.
The key is to allow farmers to take the lead in forming such groups. They should be able to get involved in the groups that best serve their needs, and must feel free to define the specific activities they wish to cooperate in. All of this is meant to happen as a matter of policy, but in practice farmers don't have this sort of freedom of choice.
Farmers should take the lead in their group operations and activities, as well as in linking themselves with external players. Group support from government departments is crucial. But officials should not overly interfere with the activities of these groups: some autonomy is necessary. Our research showed that there is too much interference from extension officers, facilitators who provide technical and information support to farmers, in particular.
The farmers should also be encouraged to work out how they want the groups to run. Do they want to farm together? Or is the focus merely on buying inputs such as fertilisers or marketing output together, while farming individually? There are many ways that such groups can be structured to offer smallholder farmers the maximum benefit.