Sara Delaney

Developing agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa involves tackling political problems as well as the scientific ones, says Sara Delaney.

Bold orange signs decorated the brightly lit rooms, each proclaiming ‘New Directions for Smallholder Agriculture’ and offering a taste of keywords to come: ‘finance, migration, accessing markets, youth…’, serving as an inspiring backdrop for the two day conference held at the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), in Rome, on January 24-25.

On the first morning two IFAD colleagues, Steven Schonberger and Geoffrey Livingston, and I presented a ‘regional’ paper we had written (PDF) for the conference on the sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) perspective.

In the paper, we try to present the smallholder situation in SSA including the challenges and opportunities, how these are changing, and how it compares to other developing regions. Following this, we build from IFAD’s recently released Rural Poverty Report 2011, which has a central theme the risks which smallholders confront – ranging from social to technological to market related. These risks are the fundamental barrier preventing many smallholders transitioning from subsistence agriculture to a commercial agriculture where they produce a surplus, sell it, and earn an income.

Reducing risk: right place, right time

But how to reduce these risks? How to make the ‘risk-to-return ratio’ low enough that more smallholders in SSA can turn farming into a sustainable business which generates profits and fuels the rural economy?

While there are many aspects to this challenge, we decided to look at two, which we felt particularly strongly about from our experience in the region: place and time.

The location of a farm in relation to a market, not only to sell products, but also to access important inputs, is crucial. And it’s not only the physical distance, but the time and cost of getting there which affect risks and returns.

Not only are small farmers in SSA the most physically isolated (34% live more than five hours (PDF) from a market town of 5,000 or more), but transport costs are also the highest and most unpredictable in the world both within countries and particularly across borders – largely due to the domination of corrupt trucking cartels.

And, as if this doesn’t make it hard enough for farmers to perform critical operations at the right time, we found that many agricultural development programs do not deliver promised services at the time they are needed on the agricultural calendar. For example, in the majority of fertiliser subsidy programs, a significant portion of fertilizer or subsidy coupons are delivered after the optimal time for use in the field (PDF). Rather big ‘elephants in the room’ as co-author Geoffrey Livingston referred to them during our presentation.

Pushing elephants out the door

What to do about these elephants? In our paper we make recommendations, mainly aimed at funding institutions like IFAD. But the feedback from the floor was strong – this is something that will require the full range of partners to tackle. Not only do international donor institutions have a role to play, but so do national governments, local NGOs, the private sector and farmer organisations.

As the conference went on other elephants kept barging in: corruption in other parts of the agricultural chain (extension services, project management staff, input delivery, local trade negotiations), international trade inequalities, the struggling education system as well as the resulting lack of youth with sufficient managerial or technical skills – the list grew. But at the same time, panel members repeatedly returned to the necessity of creating an ‘enabling environment’ – an environment where farmers themselves can take advantage of new funding, and new innovations, and create change on a large scale.

But who is going to create this enabling environment? Who is going to get the elephants out of the room? I believe, and we are going to recommend in our next draft of the paper, that each group has a role to play.

The private sector for example, will be a key partner in creating and orchestrating timely delivery of inputs, local NGOs in local capacity strengthening and knowledge transfer, national governments in prioritising farmer-focused infrastructure and policies, donor institutions in providing the needed linkages and funding, and farmer organisations in coming together to share information, become more powerful and negotiate effectively with private partners and the local government.

Some of the constraints, however, are really quite challenging and political. Dismantling trucking cartels supported by national governments, for example, is not something that IFAD is likely to take on.

So who will do it? Coming from a technical background, I more enjoy thinking about new seed varieties, or creative water management techniques, but I think it may be this enabling environment, or lack thereof, which will determine in which new directions smallholder agriculture will go.

About Sara Delaney

Sara Delaney is currently working as a Technical Knowledge Management Consultant with the West and Central Africa Division at the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). Prior to IFAD, she worked with the Agriculture for Impact team, led by Sir Gordon Conway, at Imperial College in London. She served as a US Peace Corps volunteer in Mali from 2005-2007. Sara has a Masters in Science, Society and Development from the Institute of Development Studies in the UK, and a Bachelors degree in Biological and Environmental Engineering from Cornell University in the US. She was editor and contributing author for the book Science and Innovation for Development, and recently authored The Right Tools for the Trade in the October edition of the UK Public Service Review – International Development.

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