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Helping small farmers feed a continent

A women farmer in Cameroon's capital Yaoundé.
(David Hecht/IRIN)

As an African Union summit on agricultural investments opens in Libya, donors and non-profits are calling participants' attention to the role smallholder farmers – mostly women – can have in feeding their communities.

Agriculture is an overlooked “emergency” that deserves as much attention as the global financial crisis, according to Kate Norgrove with Oxfam UK’s office in Dakar, Senegal. “Nearly US$9 trillion has been injected into the global financial sector since January 2009 versus $4 billion in global ODA [overseas development assistance] to agriculture. That is small change relative to the scale of the problem.”

Decades of declining production have pushed more families into hunger and disease, according to Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).

AGRA calculated that 18 percent of ODA in 1980 went to agriculture versus 4 percent in 2006.

Small farms bear the brunt of these cuts, according to Oxfam UK. In a recent report, the NGO noted the United States and European Union invested less than $3 per small farm in poor countries from 1986 to 2007.

“Half these farmers do not produce enough to feed their families,” Namanga Ngongi, AGRA’s president, told IRIN. “Small-scale farmers are not organized and do not have a voice in their government’s agriculture policies.”

More than 70 percent of Africans depend on agriculture to live, according to the UN. People across sub-Saharan Africa protested when the prices of agricultural inputs, food and fuel soared in recent years; prices remain unaffordable for many. (IRIN’s coverage of global food crisis)

''Africa's agricultural problems need massive investments - nothing short of a revolution''

Small-scale revolution

AGRA’s Ngongi said while he recognized the term “green revolution” recalls memories of failed agricultural investments, “Running away from the word does not solve productivity problems. We cannot tinker around the margins. Africa’s agricultural problems need massive investments – nothing short of a revolution.”

Solutions need to be tailored to small-scale producers’ needs, he added. If smaller packages of fertilizers, seeds and tools were available, people who can only afford smaller quantities are more likely to buy.

The readily available packages weighing up to 100kg are impractical for farmers – most often women – travelling in precarious transport over long distances on poor roads, Ngongi told IRIN.

Ngongi told IRIN farmers are now forced to travel long distances to get seeds and fertilizers because there are not enough small traders in rural areas. “In western Kenya where AGRA has implemented agro-leadership programmes to train traders, farmers are now walking on average 4km to buy inputs versus 17km before.”

Cash-strapped governments are unable to back loans to small farms, according to AGRA. “Banks need risk assurance,” Ngongi said, describing a loan-assurance programme in Kenya backed by AGRA and the UK Department for International Development (DFID) that has agreed to loan $50 million to small-scale farmers over three years.

In a recent report on cash transfers in southern Niger, the NGO Save the Children UK wrote: “Providing agricultural inputs alone is not sufficient to help the poorest households increase their food production. These inputs must be accompanied by economic support (cash or food) so that able-bodied adults can spend sufficient time working in their own fields.”


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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