Tag Archives: agra

Young people and agriculture: implications for post-land reform Zimbabwe

‘Youth’ have recently become the centre of development debates, particularly around African agriculture. A poorly defined category of young people – maybe adults, sometimes children – youth are presented in relation to a dizzying array of policy narratives. To get a sense, just dip into recent reports by AGRA (the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa), FAO and IFAD (the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation and the International Fund for Agricultural Development), the ILO (International Labour Organisation), the World Bank or IFPRI (International Food Policy Institute). Building on earlier commentary, in this series of five blogs I want to unpick some of these, and reflect on them in relation to new data from Zimbabwe, grounding the often very generic debate in context.

A central policy concern, in Zimbabwe and beyond, is who will be the next generation of small-scale farmers. This is particularly important in relation to land reform. With a major redistribution to one generation, what happens to the next? Are they going to do what their parents and grandparents did? Or will they leave agriculture for other livelihood options? Or are they going to transform agri-food systems, in ways unimagined by their parents?

Competing narratives

In this hot policy debate, narratives compete with each other, depending on the positioning of the commentator. A doom-and-gloom narrative of exit is a frequent one articulated in policy debates. Admonished for not being committed to agriculture, young people are seen as a problem – creating a demographic ‘threat’, a ‘youth bulge’ of the unemployed, migrating to towns or abroad, and becoming a burden on society, and in some cases a potential source of disruption through civil upheaval or even terrorism. Other narratives present youth as victims of accelerating scarcities – of land and livelihood options – prevented from getting on by ‘tradition’, ‘elders’ or state policy that is failing to provide for them. This in turn leads to a ‘wasted generation’; often of educated youth, unable to contribute, limited by structural constraints of society, economy or politics.

Contrasting these pessimistic narratives are others that offer a positive spin. Here the ‘entrepreneurial’ youth is celebrated. Tech-savvy, business-oriented, educated young people can, so goes the argument, contribute to agriculture in new ways, across value chains. Rather than their peasant parents, enslaved to a life of drudgery in agriculture, the new generation can make agriculture a business, and unleash the economic value of land and agriculture, especially in areas where land is abundant. As a route to modernization and technological transformation, youth are seen, in these narratives, as the vanguard.

Many influential organisations supporting agriculture in Africa – as in the reports highlighted earlier – adopt the positive, young person as entrepreneur narrative, while at the same threatening the worst (migration, civil strife and more) if nothing is done. As with all narratives – possible stories about the world and its future – there are grains of truth in each. However, too often in the current policy debates they are not located in context, and so broad, high-flown policy proclamations are too often floated without grounding.

In a number of important interventions, colleagues at IDS and across the Future Agricultures Consortium have critiqued and nuanced these positions, offering a more sophisticated perspective on youth and agriculture, including foci on youth aspirations, perspectives, opportunity spaces and imagined futures. Other work has looked at the ‘life courses’ of young people, showing how varied and non-linear young people’s life trajectories are. Still other work has tried to locate a rather narrow ‘youth’ debate within a bigger picture of economic and demographic transition, with changing opportunities for accumulation influenced by shifts in the political economy of rural, agrarian spaces and wider economies.

Changing life courses in Zimbabwe

In Zimbabwe the ‘youth’ debate is especially heated, but also conditioned by a particular context. What will happen to the next generation post land reform? Will they demand their rights to land as their parents did in the land invasions of 2000? Or can they find off-farm employment in a highly depressed economy? Which farming areas and what types of farming – and linked activity – can support more people, and how will youth be involved? These are the sort of questions that have been exercising us in our work in Mvurwi, Masvingo and Matobo over the last few years, as we seek to explore the consequences of land reform on people’s livelihoods across the country. There are some major changes afoot, and our understandings of livelihoods after land reform must certainly take generational questions into account.

Past patterns of demographic transition, linked to a classic southern African pattern of circular migration, have changed. In the past, a young man would leave home (often after marriage following the establishment of an independent home, but still economically reliant on parents); they would send remittances home to their wife/parents, and build up assets (notably cattle); and then return home later, following a period of stable employment in towns, in the mines or on the farms. Some women would follow the same route, but patrilocal marriage arrangements, and a highly gendered labour economy would restrict options, and women would move on marriage to their husband’s home, often remaining in the rural communal area, committing to social reproduction and farming.

Today, things are totally different. Patterns of migration have changed, both in terms of destination and who goes when. Men and women migrate, but often only to temporary, more fragile employment, with just a few gaining access to stable employment, often abroad. This is highly dependent on education, and so the resources of parents, restricting social mobility. Otherwise, the local economy, at least since the mid-1990s, has been precarious, offering only short-term work. The so-called kukiya kiya economy involves trading, panning, vending, and overall dealing and hustling. This is the new form of jobless work of the informal economy, as described by James Ferguson for South Africa, with multiple, fragmented classes of labour, as observed by Henry Bernstein. Such work is for survival. It creates vulnerability and precarity, and so little opportunity of accumulation. In the last 20 years, and particularly recently, this is the alternative to farming and land-based livelihoods for most.

New questions

In our on-going study across our sites, we have been interested in exploring how young people have been responding to these conditions, and asking what difference land reform makes. Those who were born at the time of land reform in 2000 are now in secondary school, approaching ‘Form IV’, when the majority leave. What are they thinking about what the future holds? Those who were at school at land reform, between around 5 and 16, are now in their 20s and early 30s. How have they fared after school in practice?

We have been looking at these two groups of ‘youth’ in A1 resettlement areas in three sites across country – Mvurwi (an high potential commercial hotspot), Wondedzo (in Masvingo district, but with reasonable rainfall and not far from a medium-sized town) and Chikombedzi (a remote location on the border of South Africa, in the marginal, dry far south of the country). These are areas we have been working in for a while, so we know the areas, and have been researching the lives and livelihoods of those who gained land through land reform.

So what have we done so far? First, we explored the perceptions of today’s Form IVs – nearly all aged between 16 and 19 – in three schools in or close to A1 resettlement areas, asking about what they imagined they would be doing in 20 years, and what constraints they thought were in the way. This was done through a combination of a ‘Q sort’ exercise and focus group discussions. Second, we sampled a cohort of those now between 20 and 31, who were kids of people in our long-standing sample. This group has (mostly) left school, and allowed us to explore what actually happened to a group of people (half men, half women) in the age group immediately above those we discussed with at school settings. Through a simple questionnaire we examined what happened to all children in this age cohort in the sample households, and pursued in detail their experiences, perceptions and life stories through a series of in-depth interviews, mostly of those who were resident or visiting their parental homes.

Aiming to go beyond the simplistic narratives, with this data we have an opportunity to explore not only imaginaries of the future but also emerging life courses, and examine how outcomes related to, for example, gender, location (high to low potential areas), the wealth status (including asset ownership) of their parents and the educational qualifications, both of the young people and their parents. In turn, we explored what our sample of young people were doing, how they had been surviving, and how they were establishing homes and families, and how they were striking up relationships with land and agriculture, including what opportunities for accumulation existed, and how the prospects for and experiences of entering adulthood appeared.

The analysis is on-going but in the coming weeks, I will share some of the emerging findings, and begin to explore some of the implications. Feedback on our emerging in analysis will be much appreciated.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland


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Policy options for African soils: learning lessons for future action

Everyone is agreed that one of the central components of achieving an ‘African Green Revolution’ is to tackle the widespread soil fertility constraints in African agriculture. To this end, AGRA – the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa – launched a major ‘Soil Health’ programme aimed at 4.1 million farmers across Africa, with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation committing $198 million to the effort. The Abuja declaration, following on from the African Fertilizer Summit of 2006 set the scene for major investments in boosting fertilizer supplies. CAADP – the Comprehensive African Agricultural Developent Programme – has been active in supporting the follow up to the summit, particularly through it work on improving markets and trade. Other initiatives abound – the Millennium Villages programme, Sasakawa-Global 2000, the activities of the Association for Better Land Husbandry, among many others. All see soil fertility as central, although the suggested solutions and policy requirements are very different.

But what are the policy frameworks that really will increase soil fertility in ways that will boost production in sustainable ways; where the benefits of the interventions are widely distributed, meeting broader aims of equitable, broad-based development? Here there is much less precision and an urgent need for a concrete debate.

What would a framework for policy and implementation look like? This is much more contested. A variety of ‘models’ – often with rather implicit policy assumptions – are being, or have been, tested. These include (among many others, and different permutations):

A technology package approach: state led extension delivery– high input demonstration plots linked to a programme of extension and credit support to encourage uptake of a technically recommended package (usually associated with improved seeds). This has been standard fare of most agriculture departments for years, but with limited impact – as the evaluations of the World Bank’s Training and Visit system showed. SG-2000 developed a more focused approach in the 1990s, with variable success, in part because the input levels recommended were very high (and expensive – up to 150kg/ha), and so often inappropriate to agro-ecological and socio-economic circumstances. Other ‘package approaches’ have focused on agroforestry, conservation tillage and other technologies, but up-take and wider impact has been patchy.

Universal subsidies, price control and state support for input supply – the state-led subsidy approach of the 1970s and 80s involved highly controlled fertiliser markets and price control/subsidy. These systems were largely overseen by large parastatal organisations which offered pan-territorial pricing and supply through distributed depot networks, often linked to credit schemes often with poor pay-back records. Subsidy programmes were initiated in response to major oil/gas price hikes in the 1970s and persisted at huge cost to the state until economic liberalisation policies were introduced from the 1980s. They have been widely criticised, although positive outcomes have been realised, such as in Malawi, but at great cost to the exchequer and with high risks of intensifying patronage.

‘Smart’ subsidies and voucher schemes: facilitating market mechanisms – this approach has been tested widely, resulting in substantial boosts in aggregate production of maize, particularly in the good rainy seasons. This resulted in decreased food prices, benefiting not only producers but also consumers (many of the rural poor), and hopefully triggering an upward spiral of investment and labour generation. Questions over long term financial sustainability have been raised, given the high costs of imported fertiliser, and the potentials for leakage and poor targeting in the voucher system.

Village level demonstration and extension: area based integrated development – this approach is at the heart of the Millennium Villages Programme, and has been a feature of integrated rural development programmes of different sorts for decades. The programme, for example, offers subsidised fertiliser and shows its effect through demonstration plots. This has resulted in significant increases in fertiliser use and substantial yield growth, claimed to be up to three times previous levels.

Bulk purchase, packaging and local manufacture: investments to deal with upstream supply constraints

Many of the preceding options are reliant on mineral fertilizers in some shape or form. With high production costs due to energy costs (for nitrogen – although declining oil prices should see a shift in this pattern) and limits to easily accessible supplies (for phosphorus), fertilizers are set remain expensive, even relative to higher crop commodity prices. Local packaging and supply has proven successful in areas of high demand, such as Western Kenya through public-private partnership arrangements (e.g. FIPS-Africa), this has meant more appropriate products in packs which are affordable are supplied. To reduce input costs further larger scale interventions are envisaged by some, including bulk purchase of fertiliser for Africa with negotiated price reductions (e.g. the African Development Bank initiative and IFDC’s MIR project). Others have even more ambitious plans for local manufacture of fertilizers in Africa to increase supply and reduce prices, through aid-subsidised investment in plant development. The overall policy frameworks for these initiatives remain unclear, but remain important if appropriate blends/supplies are to get to farmers across diverse Africa farming systems.

Improving agro-dealer networks: making markets work. Improving market access through the support of agro-dealer networks helps to reduce price of inputs and can result in improved information flows and technical advice to farmers. A distributed private sector response to input supply can, however, quickly be undermined by inappropriate subsidies or project intervention. Agro-dealers usually operate on small margins and fluctuations in supply, demand and price can affect their ability to stay in business. Umbrella organisations that support small dealer operations can offset some risks and provide back-up. However, inevitably, most commercially viable operations are in relatively high resource endowment agricultural areas, supplying relatively richer farmers. The reach and poverty impact of private sector based solutions remains hotly debated.

Scaling up local success: project support for local level innovation systems – over many years numerous projects have been initiated that have supported local innovation capacity and the participatory development of technologies. Many of these have focused on managing soil and water resources. Some have proven one-off events with limited uptake; but others have spread widely with major positive impacts on farming livelihoods. How can such successes be replicated, and mainstreamed as part of agricultural development, becoming less reliant on unreliable project based support?

These ‘models’ are familiar to more general approaches to rural development and policy in Africa and beyond. There has been much experience across Africa of each – from the technology packages and extension approaches of the colonial era, revived in the 1970s through Training and Visit to the integrated, area based approaches of the 1960s and 70s to the project mode of the 80s and the market-led approaches of the post-adjustment and economic reform era.

What is interesting today is that all are being proposed and experimented with often in the same place at the same time; yet often with remarkably little reflection on past experiences and lessons. A hardnosed assessment of such lessons is vital in advance of any new initiatives emerging from the International Year of Soils, asking what works where, when and why – and for what?

Does anyone remember the much heralded Soil Fertility Initiative of the early 2000s? What happened to that? New initiatives must not suffer the same fate. Today, there is a political momentum for action generated by a global concern about rising food prices and lagging production. There is a renewed focus on agricultural development as a source of economic growth and poverty reduction, particularly in Africa. And there have been a variety of documented successes across Africa, ranging from the Malawi fertilizer story to local agro-ecological change in the Sahel, from which to draw. Together, these factors combine to a positive context for debating appropriate policy frameworks for soils in Africa.

Some important questions are raised, pertinent to Zimbabwe as elsewhere:

  • How can a strategy that operates at scale take account of the diversity of agro-ecological and socio-economic circumstances on the ground?
  •  Is inorganic fertilizer the best initial ‘entry point’ for an integrated soil fertility management approach? If so, what should a programme look like, bearing in mind past failures? If not, what should be done first?
  • How can efficient use of fertilizer use be ensured, avoiding the danger of benefits being captured more by fertilizer manufacturers and traders than small scale farmers?
  • Do subsidies have a role in ensuring input provision and, if so, what is meant by a ‘smart subsidy’? If not, what other incentives/investments make most sense?
  • What happens when there is no market – or when market mechanisms don’t reach certain places or people?
  • What is the role for the state – in managing, supporting, coordinating, regulating, financing – and which parts of the state need support to make this happen?
  • What type of policy processes are required to ensure pro-poor outcomes and avoid capture by elites, commercial interests and others?
  • What enabling conditions need to be in place (e.g. trade policy, infrastructure, investment)
  • How should ‘success’ and ‘impact’ defined?

Some of these are addressed in the final blog in this series, coming next week.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared first on Zimbabweland

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Small farms, big farms

There is a classic debate in agricultural economics and development policy about the relative efficiencies of small and big farms. It is centred on what is known as the ‘inverse relationships’ which posits that as farms become smaller they become more productive per unit area, as costs – such as the supervision of labour – get reduced (or at least passed on to cheaper family labour arrangements). The argument is that small farms are the ideal, efficient solution to agricultural production.

Of course there are qualifications – and these are important, perhaps increasingly so in a globalised world. Very small farms, fragmented in different ways, are clearly not ideal, and suffer from many inefficiencies. Yet, what is ‘small’ and ‘very small’ is often not clear in the literature. Equally, there may be economies of scale in certain production-marketing systems, making larger farms more efficient. For example, getting high value products into international markets may mean complying with quality standards which small farmers would find difficult to adhere to.

This discussion remains at the centre of the debate about agricultural development in Africa. The African Union’s Comprehensive Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) makes a strong case for smallholders being at the centre of agricultural growth, as does the Gates-funded  Alliance for  a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). In a new book, Gordon Conway, of Imperial College in the UK, argues that smallholders must be at the centre of strategies to feed 9 billion people.

For decades, then, smallholder agricultural production has barely been questioned as the central pillar for agricultural development in Africa. But now there are some dissenting voices; and influential ones too. In a provocative paper for an FAO meeting on African agriculture in 50 years, Paul Collier – author of the best-seller, ‘The Bottom Billion’, and professor at Oxford University – and Stefan Dercon – now Chief Economist at the UK’s Department for International Development, and a well-respected research economist who has worked extensively in Africa – make the case that the advocacy of smallholder farming was sometimes wildly overblown, often inappropriately romanticised. They argue that the inverse relationship debate was misleading, and did not provide the definitive evidence sometimes supposed for smallholder farming, and that large farms are increasingly the way forward, for some commodities and in some places.

The arguments presented certainly have merit and deserve scrutiny, but they are also potentially flawed in important ways. The arguments for large farms are that economies of scale in today’s globalised world are such that smallholder farming can never really be expected to generate sufficient growth to facilitate the necessary transition out of agriculture into industrial-led growth trajectories. In Africa in particular access to global markets, and so positioning of agriculture near road infrastructure and ports is seen as crucial, if comparative advantages in a highly competitive market setting are to be realised.

Yet the argument ignores some key facts. First, smallholders have been very successful at producing a range of key commodities. In a review for a World Bank study on competitive commercial agriculture in Africa, Colin Poulton and colleagues found that “Large-scale agriculture has proven more competitive in export horticulture, sugar and flue-cured tobacco, whilst smallholders dominate in cotton, cashew and food staples. For tea and burley tobacco there are mixed stories. Second, markets are not all global, governed by highly stringent standards. Niche selling into such markets may offer good returns, but the costs of entry are high. Perhaps better is to produce for growing domestic and regional markets, and here the flexible strategies of smallholders in feeding urban Africa have long been seen to be effective. Third, the negative effects of large scale farming on local economies, food security patterns, environmental conditions and labour and employment conditions are not factored into these arguments. Large scale commercial farming does not have a universally good track-record, frequently resulting in enclave economic operations, with poor labour conditions and high externalities, focusing on single export-oriented crops, leading to negative impacts on the local food economy.

What are the implications of this debate for Zimbabwe? Following land reform, Zimbabwe has a radically reconfigured agrarian structure. Gone is the dualism of the past – with tracts of very large scale farming, separated off from the small-scale farming areas in the communal lands and resettlement. The limited ‘Purchase Area’ land was anomalous, fitting neither model, but not integrated either. Today, we have a huge mix of farm sizes, as Sam Moyo has described. Large-scale farms and estates remain, but the majority is now a mix of small and medium scale farms.

Crucially these are much more integrated, both spatially in terms of their proximity and economically in terms of their connections, of labour, marketing, skill and knowledge transfer and so on. The economic apartheid of the past, divided by racialised social and economic barriers, has given way to a more complex, integrated patchwork. While smallholder farming dominates, it is not the only farm type. It is the mix that is important, which is different in different parts of the country, depending on agroecology, market access, infrastructure and, of course, politics.

Getting to grips with this new farm size configuration, and the implications for economic development is an important challenge. Yet it is one that policymakers have yet to get their heads around. So fixated are people on the small vs large dichotomy, often with an implicit assumption that small is backward and big is better, that the potentials of the new agrarian structure are not being grasped. The small farm populists argue for peasant efficiencies, while the big farm advocates claim business and growth opportunities.

In my view neither is correct. But where the gains are to be had is in the mix: in the economic multiplier linkages between farm sizes, in the capturing of the comparative advantages of different farm configurations, in the growth of district level economies, in the sharing between groups of equipment, skills and knowledge, and in the flexible movement of labour in a certain area. None of these opportunities could be realised in the old dualistic agrarian structure, but today there are many potentials.

But it requires a different mindset: rather than thinking about the ‘ideal type’ farm (small or large), and fixed and outdated notions of what is ‘viable’, we should shift to thinking about processes of economic development based on agriculture in an area. A territorial approach to local economic development, as we argued in our book, is the way forward, and will help us shed the often unproductive and diversionary obsession with farm size.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and originally appeared on Zimbabweland


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