Day 1: Apply what we already know works

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

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