Can market solutions unlock Africa's agricultural potential?

Thursday, 30 May 2013 17:00 GMT

An Ethiopian girl sells barley seeds in the mountainous region of northern Tigray province on November 23, 2004. REUTERS/Radu Sigheti RSS/CRB

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Better skills, access to quality seed, and cooperation could help African smallholder farmers

Africa holds vast potential for growth yet is also home to over 200 million people who are chronically hungry.

As it is estimated that 80 percent of the population depends on agriculture for their livelihoods, it is fundamental that those in the farming sector are given the access to knowledge, finance, rural infrastructure, inputs and markets that they need to increase their production and productivity as a means of improving their food security, nutrition and incomes.

While agriculture is an essential social safety net to many in Africa, it also has the potential to be an important way to boost farmers’ incomes and resilience.

Supporting farmers in this effort requires everyone’s contribution, from governments and donors to agri-businesses, development organisations and even consumers.

A prominent theme at the World Economic Forum on Africa earlier this month was the role of partnerships to accelerate investment in the agricultural sector. This sentiment was also reflected in last year's G8 discussions, where U.S. President Barack Obama launched the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition as a means of lifting 50 million people out of poverty through agricultural development.


In the lead-up to this year’s G8 in the United Kingdom, two new reports offer insights and guidance on how market-based models can improve the lives of smallholder farmers and the considerations which need to be kept in mind when doing so.

The first, “Leaping and Learning: Linking Smallholders to Markets”, offers concrete recommendations for donors, investors, policymakers and development practitioners on improving agricultural market access in Africa. 

The second, “8 Views for the G8: Business Solutions for African Smallholder Farmers to Address Food Security and Nutrition, offers G8 leaders and other decision-makers a set of practical solutions and case studies from eight leading agricultural NGOs on helping smallholders link to regional, domestic and international markets.

Both reports highlight a series of areas where markets for smallholder farmers can be further addressed, including:

  1. Access - to inputs, finance and credit, storage and professional advice.
  2. Institutional capacity – for farmers to self-organise and benefit from economies of scale.
  3. Market information – related to quality standards, prices and other enterprise support and advice.
  4. Public sector investment - to improve access to inputs, services, markets and research.
  5. Stable policy environment – so that farmers do not experience unpredictable policy shifts, weak contract enforcement and restrictive policy environments.


As an example, one of most important aspects for improving agricultural markets is to address smallholder farmers’ ability to access high-quality, improved seed.  After all, seed security is at the heart of food and nutrition security.

The Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN) work across Africa to facilitate partnerships across the value chain. Through its Harmonised Seed Security Programme , FANRPAN has been working across four pilot countries (Malawi, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe) to help develop the organisational capacity of farmers, coordinate strategic partnerships, align national seed policies, and amplify the voices of farmers at national and global events.

So far the programme has trained 405 farmers across Africa, 62 percent of whom were women, and has expanded the number of seed types available to farmers, enabling them to grow food fit for larger markets even in the face of unpredictable weather patterns.

Another organisation working to improve seed security in Africa is Victoria Seeds, Uganda’s leading seed production and marketing organization, founded by Josephine Okot. As a Ugandan business, Victoria Seeds works with smallholder farmers to multiply new varieties of seed which are then sold to domestic and regional markets, enabling farmers to improve nutrition and adapt to climate change as well as increase their harvests.


These market-based solutions are providing greater food and nutrition security for farmers, but it is also important to remember that not all smallholder farmers and not all markets are equally ready for this and may require different levels of support.

For instance, many farmers will still need safety nets, if they are unable to participate in markets or try but fail in their efforts.  Also when scaling up successes, agricultural programmes must be adapted for different agro-ecological zones and socio-economic conditions, as a successful approach in one place will not necessarily work in a different context.

Lastly, staple crops may have seen less investment to date than higher-value cash crops such as cocoa and coffee and thus may require more public stimulus, at least, initially.

Michael Hoevel is deputy director of Agriculture for Impactand Lindiwe Majele Sibanda is chief executive of the Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN).

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