Many international agricultural experts rely on smallholders. But they will not be able to increase sufficiently their productivity. Africa needs integrative farming.
This week we have participated in Berlin at a debate about farming in Africa. We have been criticised for our statement that subsistence will not be able to feed the African continent. We would like to add just one point: We are not opposed to smallholders, we are not in favour of suppressing smaller farms, and we are not just supporters of big plantations.
Our conviction is that agriculture is not the same thing as manufacturing. If you want to invest in an industrial plant, you can plan everything as you like it. Agriculture on the contrary has to follow nature. The landscape, the water conditions, the nutrients in the soil, the climate and social aspects should decide which type of agriculture is best on a specific site. Agricultural decisions should be based equally on ecological, economic and social considerations.
We are also convinced that, given a specific site, there is an optimal size for every type of farm every investor should respect. And for every site there is a specific type of agriculture that fits the best.
In some parts of the Rift Valley for instance, landscape is so hilly that it does not make sense to use big machines. There, smallholder farming might be worth considering. In other parts of Africa, water conditions and landscape are favourable to the use of big machines. Other landscapes might allow big plantations, but the ecological environment might be too vulnerable for extensive farming.
Subsistence agriculture has many merits: social and ecological advantages most of all. But it has one inconvenient: Returns tend to be lower compared to large-scale farms. We at Africa Partners strongly support subsistence farming, smallholders and smallholder cooperatives. And we are actively engaged in supporting them.
Having said this, we at Africa Partners share one strong conviction: Africa’s farmers have to increase substantially productivity to feed the 2.5 billion people living on the continent by 2050. Smallholders will not be able to procure the required returns.
In our view, Africa’s agriculture has to rely on a mix of all types of agriculture. There is not such a thing as one optimal agriculture for the whole continent. African farming needs diversity.