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Supporting the Smallholders who Feed the World

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4 November 2015

By 2050, the world’s farmers will have two billion more mouths to feed. Significant improvements to agricultural productivity are needed - particularly on the small farms of less than two hectares which produce nearly 70% of the world’s food. Supporting and promoting these smallholder farmers is increasingly urgent.

“Smallscale farmers are the backbone of the world food system,” says Adriana Opromolla, International Advocacy Officer at the charity Caritas Internationalis. Around the world, smallholder farmers number 2.5 billion, or one-third of the global population. In Africa, two-thirds of the population depend on small or micro-scale farming for their livelihood. Yet their livelihoods are precarious, and their influence limited.

Water and land

Smallholder farms are often more vulnerable to climate change and economic shocks than large industrialised farms. Changes in rainfall and weather patterns can devastate farms reliant on rain-fed crops, as many African smallholder plots are.

“We are – in the great majority – dependent on rain,” says Mamadou Cissokho, honorary president of ROPPA, Reseau des Organisations Paysannes et de Producteurs de l’Afrique de l’Ouest, or the Network of Peasant Organizations and West African Agricultural Producers. “You can’t master it, and there is no contract between farmers and gods to say for sure that you’ll have rain on a particular day at a particular hour. So investment is needed to save rivers, and […] everything which enables the recovery of water. There is a large amount, but it’s badly distributed.”



Water storage facilities are minimal in much of Africa. Ethiopia has 16 cubic meters of water storage capacity per citizen, compared to 5,000 in Australia.

In addition to water infrastructure, Cissokho believes improved land rights are essential to allow farmers to build sustainable businesses. “The farmers do not have enough land,” says Cissokho. “Land is given to big industry.”

According to Makhtar Diop, the World Bank Group’s vice president for Africa, only 10% of Africa’s rural land is registered. The rest is informally administered, making it “susceptible to land grabbing, expropriation without fair compensation, and corruption,” he wrote for This Is Africa.

Without formal ownership of the land they work, farmers lack security – a problem particularly pronounced for women farmers. They cannot easily make long-term plans or adjust their techniques to more sustainable methods to prepare for climate change.

Fertiliser and funding

One such adjustment would be to replace chemical fertilisers with organic materials. “We continue to hear about the dangers of chemical fertiliser,” says Cissokho, urging investors to direct resources into “industries which use natural fertilisers.”

Besides the environmental benefits, using organic materials rather than importing chemical fertilisers creates local jobs. “[Workers are needed to] mix the compost, put it in sacks and sell it. Natural products – everything which comes from animals and the leaves that fall – create jobs. So you win twice over,” says Cissokho.

But the popularity of chemical fertiliser continues in many African countries, subsidised by governments. Change will require funding.

Investment in African agriculture was underpowered for decades. African governments reduced their investment in agriculture in the 1980s and 1990s, and international donors followed suit, reducing assistance to agriculture by 72% from 1988-2003. 

The mistake was shown up in droughts and famines. In 2003, African leaders pledged to allocate at least 10% of their national budgets to agriculture in the Maputo Declaration, hoping to achieve 6% annual growth in the sector. But a decade later, at Malabo, only four of the 19 countries had fulfilled this promise.

The EU recognises the ambition of the Malabo Declaration and is committed to supporting the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP). This aims to advance Africa's development through wealth creation, food security and promoting economic growth.

 “Funds do not come from the sky,” says Jima Gobena, project coordinator for Caritas in the Vicariate of Meki in Ethiopia. “It’s a scarce resource. People […] have to try their best to live by their own means with little external support. Smallholders are willing and have the courage to bring change.” 

Enabling change

“We work for the empowerment and ultimate self-sufficiency of individuals,” says Opromolla. “Our interventions are always aimed at strengthening [farmers] and their position, and helping them to grow enough food to feed their families, and earn a decent income from what they sell.”



Caritas helps farmers in remote areas learn where to sell their goods for the best price, and assists them in setting up cooperatives to share skills and knowledge. It also works to improve water infrastructure, digging wells to support sustainable irrigation systems and building flood defences.

“Farmers lack infrastructure and capital,” says Gobena. “So we are strengthening existing institutions and structures so they can move by themselves – so that one day, without us, they can go at the same speed alone.”



Finding local solutions, and empowering smallholder farmers to become leaders of change, is essential. “Culture change should come from the ground,” says Opromolla.

Farmer’s organisations are springing up across the continent in their tens of thousands. They represent farmers at regional, national and international levels, and attempt to shape agricultural and sustainable development policies. ROPPA alone represents 25 million farmers in West Africa.

“We accompany the development of local communities, and support governments in providing the enabling conditions in terms of policy context and governance,” says Opromolla. “But it is also about having the political will at government level to embrace new visions for development that are more sustainable.”

“We must create conditions for farmers to be proprietors of their land and community,” says Cissokho. “We must bring together government, farmers, and overseas development agencies to discuss the questions together […] with farmers at the heart of the discussion on cooperation.”



Agenda 2030

Nutrition and food security are core themes of the Sustainable Development Goals adopted in September. More than 60 developing countries have asked the EU to support their efforts to promote sustainable agriculture and food systems as a key sector in cooperation. Already a leading donor in food and nutrition security, the EU is ready to invest up to €8.8 billion in this cause from 2014-20, with a focus on small-scale famers and on preparing the most vulnerable to better cope with food crises.

The EU strategy is to stimulate change within rural communities in order to achieve economic transition that results in sustainable rural transformation.


Food and Nutrition Security and Sustainable Agriculture


Photo credit: International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre license 

DISCLAIMER: This information is provided in the interests of knowledge sharing and capacity development and should not be interpreted as the official view of the European Commission, or any other organisation.

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