For practitioners implementing agricultural livelihoods programmes, the term agricultural transformation can appear of little relevance at first, belonging instead to the world of diplomats, technocrats and high-level policy negotiations or national development planning.

But could it hold value for us?

Our recent research process which culminated in this policy paper would suggest that yes, it could.

Firstly, the evidence shows that agricultural transformation (the process of moving from subsistence farming towards more commercial models of production and processing) does play an important role in the overall economic development of a country and in lifting people out of poverty.

This suggests that livelihood programmes focussing on this would contribute to a reduction of poverty at a national level.

But does this mean our livelihoods programmes should focus on commercial, large-scale farming or Asia-style green-revolution type interventions (which involve more fertilisers and more pesticides) in order to increase a farm’s production and in turn improve people’s livelihood outcomes?

The evidence would suggest that this isn’t the solution at all. In fact, this type of agricultural transformation leads to increasing inequality and environmental degradation. This would be very bad news for the most vulnerable communities we work in.

And so, let’s take a step back.

We know that in most of the countries in Africa where we work, most people are smallholder farmers working on less than 2ha of land. Most smallholder farmers don’t produce products for international markets. But even when they’re considered ‘subsistence farmers’ 80% do sell their surplus food in domestic and local (sometimes informal) markets. They are the ‘private sector’. Through this, they play an important part in sustaining local food economies and because of this, they should play a part in the creation of policies and rules which affect them.

Many of these food producers are ‘reluctant’ micro-entrepreneurs, and may not be able or willing to switch to commercial production for formal markets (for example, the poorest farmers are the most risk-averse: if their crops fail they may lose everything. Or their scale of production is often not enough to individually meet market demand volumes of wholesalers etc) Many of them have to rely on other forms of non-farm income (e.g. trade, manufacturing or services) to be able to buy more varied food than their small (and getting increasingly smaller) farms provide. In countries such as Ethiopia and Malawi for example, many landholdings are becoming too small (because of population changes for example) to support the food and income needs of households all year round – even with the best land management and agronomic practices.

Many of our livelihood programmes are in communities just like this. Here we are working with partners to build climate-resilient livelihoods through adopting resilient agricultural practices and encouraging participation in local agricultural markets.

This is where understanding the benefits (and risks) of agricultural transformation can be useful. Especially if we start to think about how we could create a web of linked local businesses around agricultural production.

These smallholders could benefit, for example, from work opportunities in enterprises linked to producers. Seed banks, credit providers, storage providers, transporters, distributors, processing industries and traders could all be considered.

These sorts of enterprises can offer the first step out of (less financially rewarding) labour producing food for subsistence. They pave the way for the creation of more and larger formally registered and (importantly) local enterprises in other parts of the economy. The creation of large numbers of more rewarding work opportunities will ultimately be the only long-term means of exiting poverty permanently in Africa.

A thriving local economy is the desired goal here.

This involves producers who are better linked to local markets and consumers who are better linked to local producers. Creating and building on these links keeps money circulating in the local economy making people less vulnerable to shocks outside their system. Overall these short supply chains have multiple benefits both economically and ecologically (e.g. fewer resources spent on transportation).

And so the challenge to us is this: could our programme interventions think about this web of local income-generating opportunities which together, could increase overall resilience of the local economy… and therefore overall economic resilience of the people we’re working with directly?

In the coming weeks, this blog will be considering the 4 findings from the research which unpack how we can make our agricultural transformation programmes more equitable and environmentally sustainable.

We’d love to hear your thoughts and lessons from the field. Please comment in the section below and follow this blog to stay involved in the conversation.

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