Agricultural markets in sub-Saharan Africa are fragmented for the people who need them most. Two new reports set out the solutions, says Michael Hoevel.

Michael Hoevel

Population in Africa is set to almost double to two billion by 2050, and current food production systems in Africa will only be able to meet 13% of this increased demand (PDF).

At the same time, across Africa it is estimated that 80% of the population depends on agriculture for their livelihoods. Transforming this sector’s markets will not only help address food insecurity and undernutrition, but it can also unlock Africa’s trade and development potential more broadly, if implemented responsibly and sustainably.

Ahead of hosting 2013’s G8 Summit, UK Secretary of State for International Development Justine Greening says agricultural development is a “win-win for development” by boosting food security and nutrition while working “to end dependency through job creation as a result of improved agriculture markets and systems”.

Market access can help drive sustainable productivity gains, improve livelihoods and reduce risks for smallholder communities; however, the process of building markets and making them more inclusive is no easy endeavour


Two new reports take a closer look at previous efforts to link smallholder farmers to markets.

The first report Leaping and Learning: Linking Smallholders to Markets (PDF) was commissioned by Agriculture for Impact and produced by the Overseas Development Institute.  It offers a comprehensive review of previous efforts to link smallholder farmers to markets as well as guidance on how to scale up successes.

The second report, 8 Views for the G8: Business Solutions for African Smallholder Farmers to Address Food Security and Nutrition (PDF), as the name suggests, offers the perspectives and experience of eight leading agricultural organisations that are working to connect farmers throughout the food value chain.

Together the reports highlight a series of areas where donors, policymakers and development practitioners can work to improve markets access for smallholders, including:

  1. Access – to inputs, finance and credit, storage and professional advice.
  2. Institutional capacity – to self-organise and benefit from economies of scale.
  3. Market information – related to quality standards, prices and other enterprise support and advice.
  4. Public sector investment – to improve access to inputs, services, markets and research.
  5. Stable policy environment – so that farmers do not experience unpredictable policy shifts, weak contract enforcement and restrictive policy environments.

Action this day

Many development organisations are already working to address these problem areas. For instance, the Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN) is working to create a conducive policy environment for high-quality seeds to reach smallholders in the southern Africa region.  Through its Harmonised Seed Security Programme (HASSP), they are working in four countries to align national seed policies, develop the capacity of smallholder farmers to produce quality seed, coordinate strategic partnerships and create engagement platforms for all stakeholders to share experiences.

In Malawi, the organisation Twin have been working with Malawian smallholder groundnut farmers to prevent contamination from aflatoxin – a carcinogenic mould which causes serious public health impacts – by providing education programmes, proper storage techniques, infrastructure investment and simple technologies. In Zimbabwe, SNV are working with agro-dealers to ensure they have adequate stocks of supplies and to help them with distribution to more rural areas occupied by smallholders. In Kenya, ACDI/VOCA established a network of 160,000 private-sector-sponsored demonstration plots for maize farmers and worked to help them get access to market price information, weather alerts and extension messages via SMS.

Some of these organisations have even begun operating as ‘social businesses’ themselves to deliver goods and services to smallholders.  For instance, Farm Africa have created a new franchise business model called Sidai, or ‘good’ in the Maasai language, to deliver products for livestock in Kenya. Its 32 franchises enable farmers to access affordable, quality inputs and technical advice, particularly in more remote locations. Similarly, One Acre Fund helps their smallholder farmer ‘clients’ to access affordable seed and fertilizer in the right amount by bulk-buying these inputs, distributing them closer to where farmers live and offering credit until harvest time.

Other organisations are working to equip and empower farmers who produce cash crops, from which they derive their incomes. Self Help Africa are working with mango farmers in Malawi and cashew farmers in Benin to improve productivity and crop quality. And TechnoServe have been working with over 195,000 Ethiopian coffee farmers to boost their incomes on average by 37% for their coffee.

Step by step

Smallholder farmers play a central role in global development – both as beneficiaries but also as catalysts for change. Connecting them to markets can create sustainable solutions to improve their lives.

But there are some caveats.  Firstly, not all smallholder farmers are ready to participate in markets; safety nets must remain in place for them or for those who try but fail.

Secondly, when scaling up, successful programmes must be adapted to for new agroecological zones and socio-economic conditions.

And thirdly, the market for higher-value cash crops can be more well-established than for staple crops so the latter may require more public stimulus, at least, initially.

Governments, donors, businesses, scientists and development practitioners should work together to help African smallholder farmers better access markets to increase production, productivity, nutrition and incomes, and to ensure that they are sufficiently safeguarded from the risks of doing so.

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About Michael Hoevel

Michael Hoevel is the Deputy Director of Agriculture for Impact at Imperial College London.

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