Small is indeed beautiful!


By Yonas A. Yimer 

Within the last few months Addis Ababa hosted a number of conferences on agriculture the latest one of these being the ‘African Land Policy Initiative Conference (LPI) held at the African Union Commission (AUC) from November 11-14.

An ordinary person, who managed to attend a few of these conferences, can easily notice that we really are on transformation though a lot of questions remain unanswered and a lot more even contentious.

Challenges smallholders face at the dawn of mechanized, large-scale agribusiness is one of these controversial issues. On one of the focused discussions during the LPI Conference on November 12, a scholar by the name Milu Muyanga (PhD) from Tegemeo Institute in Nairobi, Kenya had a presentation entitled, ‘Small may not be beautiful in Kenya: farm size-productivity relationship revisited’. Having no luxury of space to respond to the details of his arguments I would rather take a few more lines to justify the beauty of smallholders that we all need to celebrate.

The United Nations has declared 2014 as the International Year of Family Farming (IYFF). And it had a reason to. On its background paper for the State of Food and Agriculture 2014, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimated that there are at least 570 million farms worldwide, of which more than 500 million can be considered family farms. And more than 475 million farms are less than 2 hectares in size. Well isn’t this a reason enough to celebrate IYFF? If no, let’s add a little more then. In 2010, the African Development Bank (AfDB) reported that family farms represent up to 80 percent of all farm holdings in Africa and globally they feed 70 percent of the world’s populations. According to International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), ‘the IYFF aims to promote new development policies, particularly at the national but also regional levels, that will help smallholder and family farmers eradicate hunger, reduce rural poverty and continue to play a major role in global food security through small-scale, sustainable agricultural production.’  Despite this claim by the IYFF, we have witnessed most people tending to belittle the value of smallholders and promote large-scale agricultural investments.

Mechanized large-scale farming is highly criticized of exporting employment opportunities from Africa to the developed countries because the gigantic farming machines are fabricated outside of Africa and a single one of them performs in an hour what hundreds of people could in a day. Small-scale farming, on the other hand, has promising employment opportunities for the burgeoning youth of Africa if our researches provide solutions to ease the labor with better farming equipments and techniques based on indigenous knowledge and the particular needs of smallholders. Studies also showed that industrial agriculture is energy-intensive as it uses ten units of energy to produce one unit of food while small-scale ecological farming uses one unit of energy to produce two units of food. Mechanized industrial farming, with its exhaustive use of fertilizers and pesticides, is also proved to have destroyed biodiversity and created dead-zone water bodies. The dangers of industrial farming could take a few more pages to list. However, even Ethiopia having millions of smallholders,  is  working hard to attract large scale agriculture investments.

On September this year, during a plenary session of the African Green Revolution Forum (AGRF 2014) one of the participants challenged Khalid Bomba, CEO of Ethiopian Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA) on how large-scale mechanized farming couldn’t be a solution since most of our farmers are smallholders. He had a truth. Khalid replied that it is a question of balancing the two rather than promoting one to take over the other. But it is to be remembered from his exclusive interview in March 2013 as saying, ‘given the fact that smallholder farmers account for over 90 percent of agriculture in the country, the ATA’s focus is exclusively on this group of farmers…So the ATA’s work is focused exclusively on identifying the bottlenecks constraining the development of smallholder farmers in Ethiopia…’. These statements are, in essence, a bit of inconsistent. If ATA is ‘exclusively’ for smallholder farmers their researches should only be directed to ‘solve the bottlenecks for small farmers’ rather than balancing between smallholder farmers and large-scale, mechanized, commercialized, mono-culture agribusiness.

But researches are being co-opted. Just a week ago, The Guardian, on one of its articles observed that, ‘independence in the scientific world is becoming harder and harder to ensure, as university programmes become increasingly funded by private companies with vested interests.’ And that reminded me the words of Vandana Shiva (PhD) at her keynote speech  at Wageningnen University: ‘our research systems are brilliant at doing what doesn’t need to be done and not doing what needs to be done’. We have millions of farmers who have particular knowledge of the characteristics of their particular seeds, soils and environment. The job of our researchers then should be building on what our farmers already know to ease their labor and help them produce crops of better quality and quantity.

A number of internationally recognized reports also frequently indicated that the food we produce is enough to feed 10 billion people and there are only seven billion of us on earth. The problem thus originates from inequity, not scarcity. Large scale production focused on yield, thus, will not solve our problems; if it won’t aggravate it of course as Emmanuel D. Mlaka from Landnet Malawi highlighted on the LPI conference – ‘prominent projects such as the G8 New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition in Africa intend to make great contributions to economic growth but they have little or nothing to offer small-scale farmers who end up tenants or employees on their own land with little or no security’.

On plenary session IV of the LPI conference a presenter called Marc Wegerif received the loudest of all applauds. Marc was able to touch the hearts of those policy makers, academicians, traditional leaders and civil societies who, at the end of his presentation, kept applauding him emotionally. And there was no secret about what he did; he just had the courage to demonstrate how small-scale farming is beautiful and that we need to respect our farmers and learn from those who have been feeding us for centuries. With his case stories he showed that small is where variety is in abundance; small is where nutrition is in plenty; small is where employment opportunities are in bounty, small is where independence from greedy companies is assured and small is where sustainability is guaranteed. This moved many from their seats to applaud and ask Marc for his business cards and it moved me to have more respect for these small farmers and to stand by them. And yes, that incident was a sign that told a sad story: many of the participants of these conferences believe in the small yet speak for the big.

Ed.’s Note: Yonas A. Yimer is a communications officer at Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA). The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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