Family Farms in Africa

By Marshall L. Matz and Peter B. Matz, as published by the National Farmers Union

Kudos to National Farmers Union for recognizing the link between family farming and meeting the challenge of global food security. Family farms are indeed the key to ending world hunger.

First, for purposes of this blog, let’s define a smallholder farmer as anyone tilling less than two hectares, or 5 acres. In most of the world, family farming means smallholder farming, usually by women.

Africa is an important case in point. Let’s look at some numbers—

  • Half of all the underutilized and unused agriculture land in the world is in Africa;
  • 65% of all Africans are involved in farming and food production;
  • 70% of disposable income is spent on food;
  • Most of the smallholder farmers are women using a hoe; and
  • Yields for maize are 20 bushels per acre, or one ton per hectare.

These numbers paint the picture of a significant challenge, but they also demonstrate a major opportunity. African farming is on the cusp of great change and its own unique green revolution. African farmers can double production in the next five years and triple production in the next ten.

The technology is coming on line. Seeds are being created for Africa’s climate and soil. Markets are developing and iPhones are being used for extension services (Africa is very advanced in communication technology).  Soil health is a priority. And the African Union, with the support of the G-7 and G-20, has made agriculture a priority for all African nations. Several African nations are very close to being self sufficient in food production.

U.S.-Africa Ag ComparisonIn the U.S., technology is a modern tractor with GPS and an air-conditioned cab, which is connected to the Chicago Board of Trade. In Africa, “technology” is a rope that shows farmers how far to space out rows and seeds, and how far from the seeds to put the fertilizer. The biggest challenge in Africa is getting the new technology to smallholder farmers and teaching them what to do with it.

That is where the “agro-dealer” has stepped in. Agro-dealers are private sector businesses located in rural villages that sell hybrid seeds, fertilizers and other inputs to smallholder farmers. They also conduct classes for the farmers…the African extension service. There are now some 20,000 agro-dealers in the key countries that comprise Africa’s two major bread baskets. We need 200,000 agro-dealers.

Much of the progress in Africa is being coordinated by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). AGRA was started less than ten years ago by the Gates and Rockefeller Foundations, and was originally chaired by former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan. Mr. Annan is now the Chair Emeritus and the current chairman is Strive Masiyiwa. Mr. Masiyiwa is also chairman of the telecommunications giant Econet, but is the first to say that agriculture is the key to Africa’s economic development.

And that brings us to the last point: Increasing production for smallholder farmers is the way to eliminate hunger, but it is also the way for Africa to grow itself out of poverty. Six of the ten fastest growing countries in the world are in Africa. Africa holds the key to the future on many levels. It is important for the U.S. to recognize this and continue establishing/improving economic and political relations with Africa’s 54 countries—which comprise 25% of all the votes in the United Nations. African farmers are on the rise, and so is Africa.