By AGRA Content Hub

Governments have a vital role to play in supporting smallholder farmers. But, argues Thierry Ngoga, Head of Support to State Capability at AGRA, they need technical help and partnerships to get the job done.

Awino lives in a small village in the lower Nyando basin, Kisumu County, Kenya. She relies on a four-acre plot, inherited from her late husband, to which she has no title. In 2017, following a donation of improved maize seed and fertilizer, she had high hopes for the harvest. A good harvest would enable her to pay her children’s school fees and keep the family fed.

But it wasn’t to be. In December  of that year, devastating floods destroyed her crops and killed her only dairy cow. Then, two weeks before schools reopened, she lost all her chickens – her only means of generating income – to Newcastle disease. Without access to savings, credit, crop or livestock insurance, Awino had no option but to reduce the family’s number of daily meals.

Unfortunately, Amino’s story is not uncommon. As I have seen through my work with the AGRA, such situations are widespread among the smallholder farmers who constitute roughly 80% of the farmers in Africa. With limited access to improved farm inputs, technologies, information, credit and insurance, Africa’s smallholders struggle to withstand the impact of climatic shocks and extreme weather events, plunging families like Amino’s into food insecurity and crisis.

A government issue

According to the constitutions of many African countries, every citizen has the right to adequate food of acceptable quality. This commitment is consistent with SDG 2, which seeks to end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture by 2030. Food, nutrition and agriculture are therefore public sector issues. Although other players may contribute to addressing these issues, I believe sustainable solutions can only be achieved by government.

For women like Awino and other disadvantaged groups, the start point to increasing agricultural output and income is gaining secure and equal access to land and other productive resources. Improved seeds and fertilizers, knowledge and information, financial services and market access are also vital to breaking the cycle of low productivity, poverty and hunger.

Furthermore, we must promote resilient agricultural practices among these smallholders to enable them to cope with floods, droughts and climate change in general. For developing countries, this may require increased investment in rural infrastructure, agricultural research and training, technology development, and the enhancement of plant and livestock gene banks. Market systems must also be made to work properly, devoid of distortions.

Only government has the authority and power to implement these measures, either directly or through facilitation. Governments must, therefore, be very deliberate in their efforts to enhance smallholder communities. Because it will not happen by chance.

Four clear steps to improvement

As I see it, there are four clear steps governments need to take to deliver meaningful support to farmers:

  1. Prioritise, tailor and sequence agricultural programmes to the challenges farmers face. To do this, governments need to engage with smallholders on the ground and devise plans based on the data these meetings generate.
  • Provide a range of services to meet the breadth of smallholder needs. In addition to things like seeds, fertilizers and technologies, smallholder farmers often require additional support in the form of technical and financial help, or guidance on markets and risk management.
  • Synchronise and collaborate to provide maximum impact. Governments need to ensure all parties within the agricultural sector are pulling in the same direction. For example, if a programme has been identified as suitable for Awino, the government, development partners, the private sector and even farmer organisations should channel their investments into that programme. The roles and responsibilities of each stakeholder should be clear to avoid duplication and delays in decision making. Sub-national government activities should also be synchronised with those of national government, with mandates clearly specified at each level.
  • Give smallholders a voice. Create platforms where farmers can provide feedback on which elements of a programme should be sustained, which should be abandoned, and which should be improved. Such platforms should form part of a clear system to track and report progress. This may involve collecting and analysing data, reporting to stakeholders, discussing progress and capturing learnings.

Supporting and partnering with government

In my experience, governments usually know what needs to be done to improve smallholder productivity and wellbeing. But they often lack the capacity to fully discharge these responsibilities.

For example, they might lack the expertise to collect and analyse data to inform agricultural sector policies and priorities, or the ability to identify high-impact rural programmes. They might lack the human, systems, tools and financial resources required to implement and deliver projects. Or the skills and experience to bring sector stakeholders together and achieve consensus. Many governments also do not have the requisite data systems to support evidence-based planning, progress tracking, reporting, peer review and learning.

In short, while governments are vital to driving progress for smallholder farmers, they are often hamstrung by internal shortcomings. Recognising this situation, at AGRA we have made what we call ‘state capacity enhancement’ a key strategic priority.

To strengthen the ability of governments to support Africa’s farmers, it is critical to invest in the development of agriculture line Ministries, focusing on areas such as prioritisation and performance management, planning, budgeting, procurement, resource mobilisation and leadership, as well as data management and analysis. It is also important to invest in institutional capacity enhancement, looking at organisational structure, staffing, funding, equipment, tools and technologies. Other focus areas include legal and regulatory frameworks to facilitate the implementation of key sector policies. In this regard, AGRA provides support to governments in the form of staff time, technical secondments, grants for government activities, and the procurement of consultants to strengthen the areas mentioned above.

Due to the complexity of the agricultural sector, AGRA often forms strategic alliances with development and technical partners. This approach enables us to concentrate on areas where we have competence and experience, while leveraging the expertise of third-party specialists in other areas. In this way, additional resources can be mobilised, programmes can be better coordinated and partners more aligned, while quality services can be offered for accelerated sector transformation.

Crucially, AGRA also encourages governments to work in collaboration with other partners (national, regional and international) and take a multi-stakeholder approach to tackling food and nutrition security. Because while governments are the primary players in this field, they cannot achieve their goals alone. Only through partnership with external stakeholders, in particular private sector organisations, can governments deliver the programmes, policies and interventions required to transform the agricultural landscape.

I truly believe that through strengthened government support, smallholder farmers like Awino can build the resilience they need to withstand floods, droughts and other extreme events. The primary objective of this work is to help Africa’s smallholders improve their incomes, livelihoods and lives through sustainable agricultural production and productivity. And it is an objective that is fully achievable. Indeed, with multiple sector stakeholders working together, driven by strong national governments and guided by common programmes, Africa can begin to progress towards food and nutrition security. And Awino can begin to look to future harvests with confidence.