One-size-fits-all policies won’t deliver sustainable farming in Africa

Governments and development agencies need to give greater consideration to conflicting objectives of different types of smallholder farmers when promoting sustainable agricultural intensification in sub-Saharan Africa, says report.

News, 26 April 2020
A woman farmer bends over to tend crops in a field

A woman farmer in Burkina Faso bends over to tend crops in a field. A new study highlights how farmers make constant decisions and trade-offs as they consider income and food needs (Photo: Ollivier Girard/CIFOR, via FlickrCC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

A new briefing paper published by IIED offers suggestions on how policymakers, donors and development agencies can better support African farmers to improve agricultural production in sustainable and climate-friendly ways.

The paper sums up the findings of a three-year research study of trade-offs in agricultural intensification. It included in-depth case studies of farming households in Ghana, Burkina Faso and Malawi during which households were interviewed about their aims and concerns over a period of two years. 

The case studies found that rural households must balance a range of competing objectives and make difficult trade-offs as they try to meet their immediate and longer-term needs with the limited resources they have available.

Smallholders regularly make trade-offs between a range of objectives, many of which may not directly relate to farming. These commonly include: food security, educational opportunities for children, immediate income needs, social harmony and sustainable natural resources.

The paper says policies and programmes seeking to improve agricultural production can avoid undermining farmers’ existing strategies by recognising that farming and wider livelihood systems are interconnected.

Sustainable intensification for diverse households

The concept of ‘sustainable agricultural intensification’ (SAI) focuses on farmers increasing their production without creating harmful social and environmental impacts. Many policymakers see SAI as a vitally important pathway towards more productive and sustainable agricultural systems in Africa.

IIED’s briefing paper says governments, agencies and others promoting SAI must recognise that farming households have diverse resources, capacities and priorities, and they should avoid promoting fixed, ’one-size-fits-all’ programmes.

It says top-down interventions and inputs must better consider the diversity of farming households and their needs and varying capacities.

The paper also recommends a shift away from heavy promotion of individual technologies or fixed packages, and towards encouraging systematic changes in farming systems, in the wider agroecological landscape and in rural communities.

It says the financial and technical support that is available for farmers should better support investment in assets and adopting practices that deliver long-term benefits – such as long-term soil and water conservation, appropriate mechanisation and developing institutions that can support transformational processes. 

Short-term perspectives

IIED researcher Barbara Adolph says the SITAM research highlights practical issues that need to be considered by policymakers wanting to effectively promote SAI.

In Malawi, for example, researchers found that many farmers use herbicides to clear their fields because they need to get their crops planted as quickly as possible when the rains start. The Malawi and Ghana governments are incentivising short-term perspectives among farmers by providing subsidies for chemical fertilisers. As a result, many farmers find themselves in debt.

Adolph says: “In practice there is very little acknowledgement from governments and donors that trade-offs exist and that some productivity enhancing mechanisms and technologies have harmful environmental and social impacts in the longer term.” 

She says public money would be better spent on prioritising longer-term objectives.

The case studies were part of the SITAM project (Supporting smallholder farmers’ decision making: managing trade-offs and synergies for sustainable intensification). Funded by the UK’s Department for International Development, SITAM was part of a wider SAIRLA programme on sustainable intensification of agriculture in Africa.