Smallholder farmers can provide Africa with a powerful springboard for pandemic recovery – but they can’t do it alone
Like most Africans today – and probably like most Europeans a century ago – I grew up in a large farming family of eleven children.
Due to the prosperity of our family farm in Zimbabwe, I’ve enjoyed a successful career in agriculture economics and marketing and, most recently, philanthropy.
These experiences – both personal and professional – have offered me a wonderful opportunity to understand the fundamental tools and systems that allow farming to give a family a path to a better life.
Talk to any African professional today and you often discover a very strong connection to a farming household. The problem is that, unlike our parents, too many African farmers – about half of whom are women – lack access to what they need to succeed. That includes good seeds, healthy and productive livestock, technical advice, financing, and a reliable, rewarding market for their commodities.
In today’s challenging times, this work is more important than ever. Almost a year after the Covid-19 pandemic began, the world is simultaneously enduring a new surge of infections while fervently hoping that in 2021 we can turn to rebuilding. Getting the recovery right will be especially important for the one billion people of sub-Saharan Africa, where recent assessments warn the pandemic could erase at least five years of progress in reducing poverty.
Investing in agriculture is Africa’s best hope for bouncing back. The majority of Africans work in some form of agriculture and will continue to do so for years to come. And across Africa, growth in the agriculture sector is at least twice as effective at reducing poverty than growth in any other sector. Recent research from Ceres2030 shows that investing in evidence-based interventions in smallholder agriculture can help sustainably support Africa’s economic growth and recovery.
I believe agriculture can provide Africa with a powerful springboard for pandemic recovery, but we have to stay focused on core principles and priorities.
First, we need to recognise that for most African farmers, agriculture is valuable primarily because it generates income. When I was growing up, our farm supplied some of the food we ate. But it was the income from our farm that paid for the full range of our nutritional needs – along with other essentials all families deserve, like health care and education. The same is true of the vast majority of farming families across Africa.
African farms don’t need to get big to make some money. But our farmers need a wider menu of choices to sustainably provide consumers in sub-Saharan Africa with access to an abundance of affordable, nutritious food. The amount of food harvested per acre or hectare or produced per cow, goat or chicken on an African farm is far below what European farmers achieve.
Second, supporting African farmers in their efforts to adapt to climate change should feature prominently in pandemic recovery priorities. In the years leading up to the pandemic, our farmers were already experiencing rising temperatures, a surge in drought and floods and an everyday scrambling of once predictable weather patterns. Climate stress on food production is a key reason hunger has been steadily rising in Africa after years of declining. The pandemic is further intensifying hunger in the region, yet it’s also slowing efforts to confront the climate crisis.
Last month, leaders from Europe and around the world participated in the global Climate Adaptation Summit hosted by the Netherlands. They embraced a bold agenda for helping vulnerable communities deal with a surge of climate stress, work that UN Secretary-General António Guterres called a “moral, economic and social imperative.” Following through on the summit commitments is especially important for Africa’s smallholder farmers. Their struggles to deal with this existential threat to their sole means of survival stand in sharp contrast to their minimal contribution to the root causes of climate change.
Third, African farmers must play a role in maintaining the health of our continent’s amazing but vulnerable ecosystems and biodiversity, while still generating the income they require to lift their families and communities out of poverty.
The good news is that centuries of innovations developed by farmers themselves, combined with innovations emerging from agriculture research endeavours around the world, provide many paths to sustainability. For example, initiatives like the climate-smart villages project in East Africa emphasize soil health, water conservation, and the value of local knowledge.
Smallholder farmers were vital to Africa’s future long before the pandemic hit. Now, they will be crucial to energising its short-term recovery and long-term resilience. But they can’t do it alone. We need allies in Europe and around the world to embrace the potential of smallholder agriculture to produce better food and a better life for all of Africa.
I believe in the promise of African farmers and have dedicated my professional life to making stories like mine ubiquitous across the continent.