A great article in the Guardian examines if big farms are a possibly for African development. As a part of the Guardian's 'Katine Project" series, writer Anne Perkins weighs the options.
An economist like Paul Collier is convinced that radical steps have to be taken. "African peasant agriculture has fallen further and further behind the advancing commercial productivity frontier," he wrote at the end of last year in the journal Foreign Affairs. "Based on present trends, the region's food imports are projected to double over the next quarter century." Only large scale farms, he argues, are capable of providing the investment and market access that is essential to produce the surge in food production necessary to keep up with demand.
Rubbish, says development expert Steve Wiggins. "Yes, he is correct to emphasise the need for commercial farming. But no, he is wrong to imagine that this requires doing so on a large scale. His solution is unnecessary, flies in the face of history and carries important dangers."
The Guardian's partner in the Katine project, FarmAfrica, would agree. They lined up with the International Food Production Research Institute (IFPRI) at an international conference organised by the ODI three years ago. Its findings were reviewed recently in a discussion paper where the IFPRI called for African governments to prioritise support for small farms while developing exit routes for those whose land is swallowed up by more successful neighbours.
Unlike the Collier cry for rapid commercial development, their emphasis is on organic growth. They point to the unhappy experience of attempts to impose commercial farming, with its history of poor labour standards and clumsy machinery maintenance, and a disregard for the good of the land itself.
An experiment in Malawi is attracting world attention. A 10-year programme backed by Cru Investment's Africa Invest has acquired the leasehold of land to form two large (more than 100 ha) farms and two smaller ones. They employ local people, offering training and experience in working with new techniques and machinery, and teach skills like lorry driving and management.
At the same time, the operation supports local smallholders by buying in and marketing their surpluses at fair trade rates (it boasts of "the discipline of investment" over "aid hand-outs"). Jon Maguire, the chairman of the project, promises the villages will meet all the Millennium Development Goals within two years of start up. He claims that already he employs 2,000 people and pays well above poverty rates.
The idea behind it is that commercial investment can overcome some of the sustainability problems that dog aid projects. If the investment is economically viable, over the 10-year period of commitment – the theory goes – people involved in it will build up the expertise and knowledge to be able to take it on themselves. Alternatively, Africa Invest might renew its interest.
On paper, it has overcome all the obvious hurdles: it has security of tenure, but pays its landlords a share of the profits. It is spreading resources and knowhow throughout the community as well as contributing directly to poverty eradication. It can bring capital investment and marketing clout and it is seeking relationships with supermarkets to improve the share of the eventual sale price received by the grower. Too good to be true? Or a future for African agriculture?