Woman sweeping her yard, Uganda. Image: Oxfam
Woman sweeping her yard, Uganda. Image: Oxfam

Day 1: Apply what we already know works

9 December, 2012 | Future of Agriculture: Online Discussion

In many unlikely and inhospitable places, smallholders are already feeding themselves and their communities and leading their nation’s economic growth. Many of the solutions to farming’s challenges exist. They need tailoring to each locale and long-term reliable policy support.

By Kanayo F. Nwanze, President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD)
The drought-prone South Gansu province of China suffers from limited water and severe soil erosion. It is not a hospitable environment for food production. Yet, despite these harsh conditions, farmers are producing and selling more food. They are feeding themselves and their families. And their incomes are steadily rising. 

In degraded areas of Burkina Faso, smallholders are using simple water harvesting methods such as planting pits and permeable rock dams to restore land. They are growing crops on land that was once unproductive.


“They are growing crops on land that was once unproductive.”

And in the Peruvian Altiplano where extreme temperature fluctuations have been made worse by climate change, some indigenous communities are better fed than ever and their livestock are thriving.
When we look at where agriculture should be a decade from now, we can find examples in what is already being done in the many communities where IFAD works around the globe.

Agriculture, of course, feeds people. It is also an extremely effective tool for reducing poverty. Numerous studies have shown that GDP growth generated by agriculture is more than twice as effective in reducing poverty as growth in other sectors.

With the world population expected to reach 7.7 billion by 2022, there will be no shortage of demand for food in the coming years. Our challenge is to make sure small and medium-size farms get the support they need to help meet that demand.

There are some 500 million smallholder farms around the world, supporting more than 2 billion people. Today, too many developing country small farmers are poor – cut off from the markets, the services and the financing that would allow them to benefit from rising prices and demand. Many do not grow enough food to feed themselves and their families, never mind their communities.

“Too many small farmers are cut off from the markets, services and financing that would allow them to benefit from rising prices and demand.”


How do we ensure the developing world’s smallholders have the resources they need to manage risk, cope with price volatility and help meet the world’s future demand for food? There is no simple solution.

They need the policies and political will to create an environment in which they are less vulnerable. They need investments in everything from roads to get produce more efficiently to market, to skills training to deal better with risk. They need creative partnerships between the public and private sector.  They need greater transparency in markets to mitigate the impact of volatility, and greater access to the agricultural research that would let them adapt more effectively to the impact of climate change.

Policies and political will can create an environment in which farmers are less vulnerable.

Experience repeatedly shows that when smallholders are given the means and the incentives to increase production, they can feed themselves and their communities, lead their nation’s agricultural and economic growth, and contribute to food security.

Indeed, small farms are often more productive per hectare than large farms, when agro-ecological conditions and access to technology are comparable.

“Small farms are often more productive per hectare.”

If we want smallholders to contribute to the global food supply a decade from now, they will need access to rural and agricultural finance, specifically geared to their needs, so they can invest in their farms, like the farmers participating in an IFAD-funded project in Bangladesh who can take out seasonal loans to cover the costs of crop production. Their repayments are made four to six months later in a single instalment, reflecting the cash flow cycle of farming.
They will need access to risk management tools, like the farmers in an IFAD-WFP pilot project in China who protected their rice crops against the risk of drought with weather index-based insurance.

Ten years from now, we see farmers with access to paved roads, like the farmers of the Pacific Island of Tonga who can now get their goods to market in a fraction of the time it once took.

“Ten years from now, farmers will have paved roads that get their goods to market in a fraction of the time it once took.”

And we see them with access to modern storage facilities, like the farmers in Tanzania who can store their produce safely and sell it when the harvest season is over and prices are higher.

When we look to the future, we see farmers with access to newer technologies, like those of Senegal and other parts of Africa who have improved rice seeds that are drought tolerant, require less weeding and mature more quickly. These farmers have seen yield increases ranging from 25 to 250 per cent. They are able to grow more, sell more and earn more.

We also see them using improved traditional techniques, such as the Tassa or zaï planting pits that farmers in Burkina Faso and Niger dig before the onset of the rains. These pits collect and store water, contribute to soil fertility and may help restock depleted water tables.

In a world where the impact of climate change is already having an effect on many poor farmers, we see smallholders doing their share to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and benefitting themselves in the process.  Like the farmers in China and Eritrea who are generating energy for their homes from the methane produced by human and animal waste.

To raise their incomes, we see farmers working with private-sector partners to get their produce to new markets, as they are doing in Guatemala—and doing so on terms that reduce the risks they face when entering into business transactions with new partners and markets.

Throughout the world, we see farmers’ organizations forming and gaining in strength so that farmers have greater bargaining power in the marketplace and can influence national, regional and global agricultural policies.

And ten years from now we see national governments following through on their long-term commitments to agriculture, backed by greater investment from themselves and the international community. 

“National governments will follow through on their long-term commitments to agriculture.”

 There is no secret formula that will eliminate poverty and guarantee food security overnight. But we know that small-scale producers—including family farmers, pastoralists and artisanal fishers—hold the key to reducing poverty and hunger.

They can thrive if they have the right policy support and the right training. If they are connected to markets and have access to financial services and agricultural technologies. If they are farming in ways that respect and respond to the natural environment. And if they have committed support from central and local governments.

In other words, we need to take what we already know works and apply our knowledge, tailoring our efforts to the conditions of a specific region, or even a specific village—responding to the wishes of local people themselves—so that in ten years’ time we will have created lasting change, and a world where people are less hungry and have more opportunities than they do today. 

Download: Apply what we already know works


Risky or not?

Risky or not?
Both Nwanze and Murphy demonstrate that various tools are already available to manage the many risks farmers face. We know a lot about what works, and there are plenty of islands of success. So do we simply need more and better investments to build on these insights, or do we need to radically reconsider if we’re to achieve systemic successes in the face of changing risks? What do you think?


Sounds simple,looks complex

The examples Nwanze gives us sound simple at first sight. I fear that the needs of the small farmers he identifies, make it more realistic - and complex.

I would agree with him that it all starts with political will, at many levels. But political will doesn't seem to come naturally, despite Nwanze his optimism. So my main dilemma would be: how to build momentum or pressure to make the (often already promised) investments available for small farmers?

A different story from rural Tanzania

"And we see them with access to modern storage facilities, like the farmers in Tanzania who can store their produce safely and sell it when the harvest season is over and prices are higher."

Which part of Tanzania is this statement referring to? Because I have been in Kibaha district for over a year, and I have not seen any of this. I have a complete different story: farmers in rural areas are still farming with the same methods as 50 years ago, food is not even enough to feed the local population despite everybody has a piece of land and cultivates. The amount of rice harvested per acre is incredibly low, about 2 to 3 bags. And the large majority of farmers I interviewed declared to sell their rice and buy maize flour (cheaper) instead, because they lack storage facilities. Even when tractors have been available the farmers have not been able to pay to rent them (not even with produce) because the lack of water and irrigation system. To be able to purchase food they are cutting the forest and making charcoal (they sell it in Dar es Salaam where the demand and the price for it is quite high), a solution far from being eco-friendly, but they have no alternatives. I have heard many farmers in this area talking on how they don't trust each other, on how they tried to work together but they failed.

The article is full of hope and very positive, but unfortunately the challenges are many, and as the article says at last, only if "farmers have the right policy support and the right training. If they are connected to markets and have access to financial services and agricultural technologies. If they are farming in ways that respect and respond to the natural environment. And if they have committed support from central and local governments" hunger can be solved.

RE: Apply what we already know works

This is really an interesting reflections and a lot of positive hope for the future. In the meantime I would like to complement the following issues for the discussion;  

Smallholders are both producers and consumers:

Here I just wanted to recall my traditional farming system at home, my mother always used to store sufficient produce first for our annual consumptions and the  surplus one she used to allocate for the sale to full fill our basic need like our school fee , clothes and medicine , now a days what I am experiencing that traditional food storage at individual capacity and  community based food banking  system is gradually  disappearing  . Generally, Smallholders are typically both producers and consumers, and given that local food markets may not function efficiently, the impacts of commercialization on food availability for smallholders must be considered. Otherwise farmers sell their produces in low prices in the harvesting seasons and they have to pay more money for the same food during the off seasons.  Therefore in our current intervention system, we need to consider Small holders are both producers and consumers.

Higher income vs welfare aspects:

Yes , the higher income may come at the expense of food security or labor opportunities . Now a days we have a strong believe that market development approach will give more income  to the small holders farmers, generally higher income may or may not translate into poverty reduction. The  improved nutrition, health etcs are the key elements to consider , therefore community based insurance system  and the appropriate food habits should be well integrated  in to the current agriculture intervention practices .  

Gradually losing our Indigenous corps;

Due to the higher pressures of productivity issues to reach the global demand of increasing mouths, we are gradually replacing our Indigenous crops varieties by hybrid varieties, therefore   we have to consider these elements- how to protect our Indigenous crops as well.

Good to be more pragmatic

 Just two points

1) There has always been an interest to produce more. But this could not be achived even in high potential production  environments of Africa. What is the problem ? In a situtaion were we could not optimize production in potential environments, how can we motivate farmers in low yielding and risky environments ?

2) What do we mean when we say farmers in risky environments could feed themselves ? I think we need to segment the extent of risk and associated socio-economic, technological and institutional aspects. Risky environments in Asia and Africa do considerably differ ! that is why green revolution in Africa could be more challenging.


Good agriculture is good business

With food security back at the centre of international attention, this discussion on the future of agriculture is very timely. As a country with a strong agricultural tradition, the Netherlands has a special interest in developing the agricultural sector and sustainably improving food security. This has a central position in our international cooperation. The overall objective of our efforts is to ensure that the world produces enough safe and good quality food for a world population of 9 billion people by 2050, and eradicating the hunger that 875 million people still cope with to this day. Development of the agricultural sector can be a driving force for wider economic development and is therefore a very effective way of addressing the parallel challenges of poverty and food insecurity. 

Development of the agricultural sector should start at the beginning of the value chain: we need to promote a sustainable increase in farm production. Productivity has to rise significantly, without expanding existing agricultural land but with close attention to smart management of soil, water and biodiversity. To do this, we must give farmers of all sizes and shapes the tools to become successful entrepreneurs, because good agriculture is good business. Mr. Nwanze has rightly highlighted a number of things that are crucial for the sustainable development of agriculture worldwide. We need to give farmers access to good inputs and training on good agricultural practices. Farmers need a good business environment that supports investment, growth and innovation. And they need good connections to local, regional and international markets so they can sell their produce at a good price. Such a market-based approach which aims to connect supply and demand in an equitable manner is indispensible if we are to feed 9 billion people in 2050.


‘To apply what we already know works’ therefore to us means that we have to work together with all stakeholders to ensure the development of sustainable agricultural value chains. In doing this, it is important to keep a number of principles in mind; 1) build on existing, local knowledge; 2) graft external knowledge on this local knowledge system; 3) don’t just propagate technology but work on the change of institutions (including attitudes);and 4) take into account the role and knowledge of women. We believe that it will be especially important to strengthen cooperation with the private sector. Farmers are entrepreneurs first and foremost and should be approached in that way. From supporting the development of a seed sector for vegetable production in East-Africa, to promoting private sector partnerships with international organisations, and from investing in expanded access to first-class seed potatoes in Kenya, to advancing a multi-stakeholder platform for improved nutrition; by promoting public-private partnerships, the Netherlands has been successfully at developing agricultural innovations around the world.


Marcel Beukeboom,

Head of Food Security and Financial Sector, Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs

RE: Good agriculture is good business

I totally agree with the statement made by Marcel Vernooij  “Development of the agricultural sector should start at the beginning of the value chain: we need to promote a sustainable increase in farm production. Productivity has to rise significantly, without expanding existing agricultural land but with close attention to smart management of soil, water and biodiversity.”

Some more points I would like to add:

Enhancing the sustainable agriculture practices, we need to build and embed a local agriculture knowledge system. Local capacity building through farmers’ school system (farmers to farmers learning system) is important aspect to consider. The value chain, multi-stakeholders approaches, SMART subsidies and provision of sustainable and affordable agri inputs supply chain are the current best practices. Furthermore, to make current agriculture production sustainable, in our intervention we have to connect three elements: water, Energy and food strongly.


I agree with what Mr Nwanze says: small holders are not only feeding themselves, but are contributing enormously to their countries' economic growth and to solving some of the many problems the world faces. I would add

1. that the challenge is not only to support them, but also to widely recognise this contribution, to make it clearly visible, to value their efforts and all the positive benefits they are bringing.

2. that we need to be very clear about the support we are offering. Are the different IFAD projects which are mentioned effectively helping farmers? What's needed in a project and what should be left to the farmers themselves? And how to scale up these results?


I'm unable to read the blog at this time, but noticed in the description of the event that Nutrition is sorely missing.  Focusing our Agriculture on the health of people and the environment is possible.  I'd like a question to be added, as well as adding a nutritionist to the panel.

Question 5:  What if the food we grew was healthy for us and our planet?  (i.e. food baskets & subsidies would match nutritional food guides).

Thank you for your consideration organizers.

Stacia Nordin, RD


personal website:  www.NeverEndingFood.org, Malawi

Adequate Funding for Agriculture.

Africa countries, especially Nigeria need to invest heavily into Agricultural sector: this will help in research; building of silos for storage and preservation; construction of dams and rehablitation of old ones for adequate water supply; creating of market for value added-chain; subsidizing of agric tools and machine; and low credit rate for farmers. This will employ more hands and create alot of employment oppurtunities.

Apply what we already know

If 500 million smallholder farmers feed 2 billion people, than an average smallholder does not feed his/her own familly (average families more than 4 persons). In other words, average small farmers are not able to sell, they are depleting their soils and do not make profit out of agriculture. Investments are required for change and small farmers are not able to invest. Only the mythic baron Von Münchhausen was able to pull himself and his horse on his own hair out of the marshland.

Henk Breman   

Political will and an enabling environment

Political will of the governments is very important to safeguard small farmers from vulnerable situations/conditions. An enabling environment where governments give due weightage to small farmers and also conider them an pertinent player in the economy is must for farmers to be more productive. There are numerous examples where farmers are no more growing because they are not getting due profits to feed themselves and at the same time send their children to schools. Thus governments need to create an environment that encourages small farmers to keep on growing and to bring them in the mainstream market.

Yup millions of farmers do know what they are doing

Yes, lets build on the knowledge of hundred of millions of small farmers who feed much of the world already. Many of them women who get even less support than the men. If only a fraction of the investment that goes into research for corporations went into research to build on what small farmers already do we could see so many gains. If we just invested in things like preventing the 30% post production losses in much of Africa we would already have so much more food available without needing to bring in totally new farming practices. 

Importantly as the problem of hunger is not one of lack of food, it is the access to it, so replacing the work of hundreds of millions of small farmers with big corporate farming is just driving more people into hunger while corporations sell agric products for agro-fuel and profitable, but unhealthy, snacks and highly processed and packaged foods.

And to those who say people don't have to be farmers for ever, we need industrial growth, etc... yes I totally agree, but bring that industrial growth, bring those better quality jobs, I won't stand in the way, not woul I be able to, of farmers moving into those jobs. Until those jobs are there though, apply what we do know, build on what is there.

count our blessings

As others, I am a great fan of learning from experience. The big challenge is how to make this experience available to others, women and men. Preferably without having to resort to bigger institutions/organisations with their own agenda's. And without the risk that knowledge is stolen. In this era of globalisation the answer is probably in powerful global communication systems such as social media. Let's count our blessings.

Public and Private Grain Reserves are important for farmers

Governments play a key role in helping to stabilize commodity prices through both public grain reserves and by helping farmers to store grains on their own farms. In North American and European countries, it may be taken for granted that these systems have been in place for a century or more, evolving and becoming more refined over time, and that developing countries have not been given adequate time or support to set up such systems.

In certain countries, like in Australia or New Zealand, which are largely agricultural export economies, both the farmers and governments support absolute free trade systems. They see government support as government interference in the free market system. They are able to do this because of the vast acreage their farmers have access to coupled with favorable climates and top of the line infrastructure, roads, ports, etc., which obviously the governments built and paid for!

Unfortunately, most countries do not have vast land resources with an extremely low population density. Their farm economies are consequently more fragile and their commodity prices can suffer as a result of countries producing massive quanties of commodities at much lower prices. One of the few ways to correct this problem is by taking efforts to regulate supply and demand of commodities. Governments can buy up supluses and establish physical reserves both to stablize prices and to guarantee supply in times of shortage. Crucially, farmers with their own storage facilities can hold on to grain when prices are low or sell at verious times throughout the year to ensure more stable income. Entrepreneurial farmers with storage systems can move for identity presevation systems, growing organic cultivars, non-gmo varieties and other specialty varieties for limited markets, and thus earn much higher income than otherwise could be obtained.

Development projects in developing countries should not simply focus on supplying seeds and inputs. This is a serious mistake. Farmers and countries should be enabled to develop effective reserve systems. I advocate providing small and medium sized farmers throughout the developing world with subsidize access to appropriately sized grain storage facilities.

The smallest grain bins store about 60 cubic meters of grain, for example, and are available for low prices. Comparatively, financing a billion dollars worth of small-scale grain storage facilities would have exponentially better results than financing the supply of fertilizers and seed. More common sense needs to be applied when putting programs into place to really help farmers.



Thank you for your comments

Thank you for your comments.  Their range and scope underscores the fact that there is  nothing simple about getting agriculture to where it needs to be in ten years’ time.  

 Of course, there are too many parts of the developing world where farmers still face enormous problems of land and water access, soil fertility, productivity and marketing; but we are seeing important progress in many of the places where we work, whether  in Africa, Asia or Latin America.

 I know it will not be easy, but I am optimistic that we will get there. In the past three years alone, there has been a significant shift in support to agriculture, particularly smallholder agriculture. There is also a growing recognition that smallholder farmers – and this very much includes women – need to be recognised as business partners and involved from the start in shaping and implementing agricultural development efforts. 

 Equally important,  more and more companies working in food value chains see smallholder farmers as playing a critical role as suppliers. This growth of market opportunities is an important stimulus for smallholder farmers to invest in their own agricultural productivity.

 In partnership with national governments, other international development agencies and rural people themselves,  we are steadily scaling up our more successful programmes and projects, but as Maruika Mura indicated, we have not yet arrived at the point where we can reach every district of every developing country. For that, we will need expanded public-private partnerships, along with the support of good governance, enabling policies and effective institutions.

 These partnerships are also necessary to create the rural infrastructure – including roads, electrification and storage facilities – so that smallholders can safely store and profitably market their surpluses. Consider that an estimated 20 to 40 per cent of crop production is lost in sub-Saharan Africa because of deterioration after harvest; and worldwide, about one-third of food ends up as waste.

I am encouraged by the shift I have witnessed in how development is implemented in the field, with much more emphasis on sustainability, on helping poor rural people to better manage risk and strengthen their resilience, as well as a shift away from treating poor people as helpless victims, waiting for the next hand-out.

 I hope that you will continue to contribute your ideas;  dialogue is essential in helping us do even better.

Chau Abbs

I am continually searching online for tips that can help me. Thanks!

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