Empowering Farmers in Africa: A Solution


As a short anecdote, I have been deeply fascinated with the concept of agriculture as a means to end poverty in developing regions for a while. (For all the Public Forum debaters out there, this infatuation began with the GMO topic.) I wanted to write more about my rationale for organizing a fundraiser for Farm Africa last fall, and why I think agriculture can be an extremely effective lever for the reduction of poverty, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. As I tried to do last year, I want to get behind projects that have a targeted mission backed up by statistical information. While farm aid may seem unsexy at first, I believe it has the power to set in motion reinforcement loops that will thrust entire populations out of poverty.

An Effective Approach

As the saying goes, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” In Africa, where a plethora of populations rely on agriculture for their livelihoods and sustenance, the importance of a well-developed agricultural sector cannot be understated. A 2008 World Development Report emphasizes that through agriculture, poverty can be reduced amongst the rural poor by acting as a catalyst for economic growth. According to the report, this is especially relevant to agriculture-based economies, mostly found in sub-Saharan Africa. Agri-growth is pro-poor; farming can connect smallholder farmers to economic growth. Agriculture remains the easiest way for poor, rural communities to take advantage of their own labor and land to produce crops that feed their families while increasing their incomes. In sub-Saharan Africa, the specific benefit of an agriculture-driven economy is even more pronounced. A recent study found that agricultural growth is 11 times more effective in reducing poverty than non-specific GDP growth.

Where to begin

Herein lies the problem: African countries have not seen an increase in farm productivity that Asia has seen in the past 30 years. Domestic spending on agriculture has been largely ignored, leaving crop yields at the same levels as the 1980s. As the population explodes, reducing Africa’s dependence on imports will be imperative if the continent is to compete on a global scale. This is where farm aid comes in.

Farm aid, unlike traditional food aid, works to improve smallholder farms and their surrounding support structures by proliferating technology, skills, and methods to the local populations. Empowering the rural farmers through effective, labor-intensive farming is a much more permanent solution than shipping in food from better developed agricultural centers. Focusing on agriculture, a sector in which 2/3 of Africans depend on for their incomes, would set in place reinforcing feedback loops.

One.org highlights a few problem areas African agriculture suffers from, including, “poor infrastructure, expensive fertilizer, poor access to extension and financial services, unreliable and unpredictable markets, low use of technology, and limited land security.” When these areas are targeted, as proposed in the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals, Africa will experience a boon in economic growth that coincides with effective poverty reduction.

Farm Africa, an NGO focused on building productivity amongst smallholder farmers, serves as an example of how a private organization can target these areas at a local level.  In countries like Kenya, for example, Farm Africa helps develop mango farms, improving infrastructure while getting better mango stocks to farmers. Farm Africa is spearheading many different developments in different sectors of agriculture, from livestock to aquaponics. The goal is simple: building systems that grow Africa out of poverty and into a sustainable development path.

How to help

An influx of social AND financial capital is what will help expedite this growth. Additionally, at the government level, policies must be set into place that promote the growth of smallholder farming. An increase in productivity must happen if Africa is to feed itself (and potentially much of the world). Getting involved with NGOs like Farm Africa is an effective way to use individual skills you have to improve the economies of less developed communities. The information on the effectiveness of this aid, combined with my personal interest in agriculture, made it easy for me to start my fundraiser last year. Less aid will be needed down the road if we help to make those affected areas self-reliant.

How should we effectively target poverty? Any ideas? Agree with Shaan? Leave a comment below!



  • ME
    August 14, 2015 1:57 am

    In many African countries, there are still Agricultural Marketing Boards which act as a government monopsony buy farm products from farmers at prices significantly below both the world and domestic market price (sometimes as much as two thirds below market prices). These boards then sell the products in the domestic and world markets. Such a move allows governments (and as such, politicians personally) to expropriate large amounts of financial resources from farmers (they then use these monies to finance “public” operations – public is in quotes because many African governments are highly corrupt). As such, farmers have very low incentives to work hard (half to two thirds of what they make will be expropriated), and government elites have no incentives to eliminate these boards (they are making a lot of money off of it while keeping the population poor.) Without addressing the extractive economic institutions (such as Marketing Boards, there are of course others) which allow the government elites to profit off of the work of the poor, no long term and sustainable growth is possible.

    • shaanfye
      August 14, 2015 2:07 am

      Thank you! Of course, effective government polices (those that close loopholes for the elite) are paramount in ensuring a sustainable source of growth. Do you think that the low incentive for the farmers has caused the stagnant productivity growth?

      • ME
        August 14, 2015 7:51 am

        It’s less of a loophole and more of a department. Think of these agricultural marketing boards as like the department of agriculture, except no legislative body ever created the board (most are intensified remnants of the colonial period.) Regardless, that is more of a semantical point.

        To answer your question: Yes. It is the lack of individual incentives which ensured the “green revolution” which has swept the world has yet to reach to Africa. Why would anyone engage in much more than substinence farming if I wouldnt see any returns from my work? Why invest in my own farm when any returns on that investment could be seized (or even destroyed by Rebels/the government)?

        The solution is simple: accountable governments. Getting there… Well that’s the hard part. There’s a vicious cycle. The people with very big guns and armies have a lot to lose if they enact government reforms (western aid with democracy conditions does nothing to change that calculus, they just take the aid, not implement reforms, and laugh as the UN, U.S., etc. do nothing to force them to make these reforms… Then repeat the next year): they have power and wealth because of a highly extractive system. Change could be very bad for them. If there was an elected legislature and executive branch which were accountable to the people things would be very different. The government couldn’t get away with forcing farmers to sell their products to a marketing board at a third their value, in principle at least. There’s always hope: democracies have emerged from dictatorships in the past (Russia, for all its faults, is more democratic today than it has ever been in history.) it will just take time and foreign governments with the will to do something for nothing.