Mail & Guardian (South Africa)
By Jennifer Susan Chiriga
July 28, 2009

At no time in the history of the region has the importance of the smallholder farmer — the home-based farmer growing basic crops to feed his or her family — been more important.

Millions of vulnerable people in Southern Africa have been affected by chronic food shortages, exacerbated by the global foodprice crisis.

Poverty in the region — far greater in rural areas — has continued to exist because of a lack of agricultural strategies aimed at smallholder producers.

The agricultural sector is the highest contributor to GDP for a number of Southern African Development Community countries, contributing, on average, 35% of the region’s GDP.

About 70% of the region’s total population of 249-million (40% of whom live below $1 a day) depends on agriculture for food, income and employment.

Despite this dependence, countries still import food and some of the poorer countries continue to depend on food aid.

Levels of production necessary to ensure food security have not been achieved, particularly for the poorest people.

The smallholder sector is a major area of underdevelopment that has been characterised by poor policy and planning.

In the past 30 years, conditionalities imposed under the neoliberal policies of international financial institutions have forced developing countries to commit limited investment to agriculture.

The state of food security
According to a report released in July 2009 by the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), the forecast for cereal harvests in the Southern Africa region is expected to show an increase of 4% from 2008 figures, and this is attributed to good rains and an increase in aggregate production owing to boosted harvests in Zimbabwe, Namibia, Malawi, Zambia, Swaziland, Mozambique and Botswana.

But statistics show that in spite of good cereal harvests and a drop in international food prices, food prices in developing countries remain high.

In Southern Africa high food prices continue to affect millions of rural and urban poor, who spend, on average, 60% to 100% of their income on food.

As a coping strategy, most households are reducing the quantity or quality of their food consumption.

The trend is a progressive deficit in domestic cereal availability and underconsumption at the household level.

What is needed?
A broad public-led strategy is needed to support smallholder farmers.

The focus must be on policies that promote production through provision of equipment, fertiliser and seeds, and infrastructural development such as transport networks that link production in rural areas with markets in urban areas.

Policy focus must also include technological innovation. This requires a concerted effort by governments in the region to invest in cheaper and easily accessible technologies, for example, drip irrigation, user-friendly water pumps and small-scale irrigation development.

A special emphasis should be on empowering women producers. According to the FAO, at least 30% of rural households are headed by women who are responsible for feeding their families.

Smallholder farmers are resource-poor, have limited or no capital (including limited land) and limited access to equipment and fertilisers.

They produce food for their household and, where possible, sell any surplus to get an income.

But if properly capacitated, they can create secure livelihoods for large numbers of people in the places that most need it, and in this way can have a major effect on food security.

Smallholder production of food must remain central to ensuring food security. This implies a paradigm shift that calls for policy to empower smallholder producers so that they can control what they grow, how they grow it and how it is distributed, in keeping with sustainable conservation methods.

Jennifer Susan Chiriga is the coordinator of civil society capacity building at the Southern Africa Trust

Source: Mail & Guardian Online

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