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Africa’s Small Scale Farming Key to Economic Success

Rural areas need concentrated assistance

U.S. aid for agricultural development in Africa is turning from its past focus on short-term humanitarian objectives to long-range development. This approach is intended to help defeat hunger and poverty, mainly by creating more opportunities to earn a good living, especially for small-scale farmers in rural areas.

Agriculture is the backbone of Africa’s economy, says Marshall Bouton, the president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. A report sponsored by the council says assistance should concentrate on small-scale farming, which he says predominates in Africa.

“The most important priority is that US assistance, in partnership with African governments and institutions, focus on increasing agricultural productivity on small farms in sub-Saharan Africa,” says Bouton.

These farms have not received the attention they need and deserve, he says, adding that levels of production per hectare are far below world levels and must be increased to assure economic security.

Modernize -- the way to succeed

The report lays out key requirements and ways to improve productivity, says the council’s president.

“Very simply put, it is to bring to bear on production on those farms the well known advantages of superior feeds, fertilizer use, pesticide and, of course, integration into markets, rural roads, credit facilities and so forth,” says Bouton.

US assistance concentrates on boosting small scale farming in Africa.
US assistance concentrates on boosting small scale farming in Africa.

Once farmers have the knowledge and the access to these resources, he says, their productivity will improve, but so far that hasn’t happened.

Most sub-Saharan economies are still dependent on agriculture, says Bouton, and it’s the lack of growth in production that’s keeping communities from achieving economic independence.

“History teaches us that no society makes the transition to a modern economy without first modernizing its agriculture,” says Bouton, “so we need to go back to basics and refocus attention on agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa.”

In the near future

This approach can be effective fairly quickly, says Bouton:

“In ten or 20 years it’s going to produce improvements in farm incomes. Improving farm incomes will allow farm children to get education. Those educated kids will then in turn contribute to the productivity of their societies more widely.”

The agricultural specialist adds that the United States is not alone in this effort; other western nations are working with the U.S. and African governments. He says this approach will yield more positive results.

“This cannot be an agricultural development policy on the part of the U.S., or anybody else, that simply replicates the patterns of the 1960s and 70s. It will no longer work. The world has changed, the politics and economics of international development have changed, and furthermore nothing will be effective unless African governments and institutions of Africans themselves are part of the solution to this problem.”

The United States has less capacity to help than it did 30 years ago, says Bouton, but it can still provide leadership in global agricultural development.

African governments need to put agriculture back at the top of their development agenda, he says; it’s been a lower priority because governments have had to provide services to urban areas. But he says that must change.

“Unless African governments are able to turn their attention to their own agricultural sectors and to improving agriculture, this [newer plan] will not work.”

Africa's small scale farmers have not kept up with the demand for food.
Africa's small scale farmers have not kept up with the demand for food.

Progress is already underway, he says, adding that many African nations have put farming needs high on their agendas.

The immediate U.S. goal, Bouton says, is to convince stakeholders that growing more food must return to the center of development policy, and he says there are promising signs that this is happening. He mentions cooperation from the US Congress, President Obama’s encouragement in international political gatherings and his decision to support a doubling of U.S. agricultural assistance. Bouton says these will improve the lives of small-scale farmers for decades to come.