Farmers’ voices: the missing link in the quest for agricultural transformation?

December 17, 2019
Agriculture remains the backbone of most African economies, contributing 24 percent of gross domestic product  in Tanzania, and about 30 percent in Burkina Faso. It also accounts for a significant proportion of exports; about 65 percent in Kenya and 49 percent of Uganda’s exports come from the agricultural sector. Yet most African economies have so far failed to leverage this advantage and it is time to take this bold step if they are to transform their economies.   

Agricultural transformation is a process that leads to higher productivity on farms, commercially orients farming, and strengthens the link between farming and other sectors of the economy. The role of smallholder farmers in agricultural transformation is critical in Sub Saharan Africa,  contributing up to 90 percent of food production. But they are often marginalized in policy discourse and on the periphery of the decision-making processBringing them on board will promote informed and inclusive policies, those that are more cognizant of stakeholder needs, and increase trust between government and marginalized groups such as smallholder farmers. It must be emphasized that the approach to engaging smallholders is critical in transforming the agricultural sector.  

One of the pathways to empowering smallholders is enhancing their access to markets. Over the years, there has been growing recognition of the critical role of markets in agricultural development, and this has prompted some market reforms across a number of developing countries. For instance, the cocoa industry was partially liberalized by the Ghanaian government while pursuing liberal market policies for other crops like maize and rice with little control over pricing, while in Ethiopia, the coffee industry has been liberalized so farmers are at liberty to sell to the private sector or on the Ethiopia Commodity Exchange. 

Yet overall, most smallholder farmers in developing countries have poor linkages to markets. There are a variety of reasons for this, including low production, low farm-gate prices, high transaction and transport cost, lack of motorable roads, untrustworthy buyers who renege on their contracts, and lack of market information. Bringing smallholder farmers into the policy formulation process can bring significant market reforms, reducing market failures. 

Linkages between farmers and markets need to be organized through a transformative process which includes grassroots institutions like cooperatives or farmer based organizations. This approach will introduce bargaining power in markets to reduce transaction costs, and sharply reduce post-harvest loses which can be as high as 30 per cent for smallholders. Furthermore, this strategy can enhance and entrench the farmers’ positions in markets and ultimately amplify their voice in policy discussions. 

Focus on agricultural research can also empower smallholder farmers. Participatory Action Research, which is considered democratic, equitable, liberating and life-enhancing inquiry that seeks the interest of all is considered vital to empowerment. Providing a platform for stakeholders to add their voice in the decisionmaking process is critical, yet more participation does not automatically lead to better outcomes. Therefore, sustainable participatory processes in which stakeholder involvement is supported by modelling and communication tools, may lead to tangible policy actions.  This could reduce the extent of information and individual bias that stifles agricultural research uptake. This approach not only gives farmers a voice, but also promotes cross learning among researchers and smallholders. It allows both parties to understand and communicate effectively in the short and long term on agriculture applications.  

It is also worth mentioning that participatory approaches have sometimes been criticized as not being inclusive enough and are limited in scope. The power dynamics in participation, especially when it is through convenings and dialogues, may sometimes impede smallholders from being heard. Power dynamics sets the tone at all levels of human interactionFor instance, representatives of the World Wildlife Fund in 2003, launched a multi-stakeholder initiative on sustainable palm oil production in Indonesia. They gave Indonesian farmers, the local communities and other stakeholders in a palm oil company a platform to express their voice in a roundtable discussion. However, smallholders and local communities felt their voices were not heard, partly due to lack of importance accorded to them compared to other stakeholders. Participants of the roundtable attempted to re-impose a hierarchical relationship between smallholders and the palm oil company managers, depriving them of representation.  

Thus, even when broad based consultations and participation are done in agriculture and rural development strategies, results are usually mixed due to the power dynamics at play.  

There are an array of approaches for civic engagement, but the use of the Citizens’ Jury may overcome this conundrum. Citizens’ jury refer to a mechanism of participatory action research that draws on the symbolism, and some of the practices, of a legal trial by jury. The “jury” is made up of people who are usually selected “at random” from a local or national population, with the selection process open to outside scrutiny. For our purposes, the jury are identified as smallholders or traders. This approach has been used extensively in many countries amidst some good reviews. One case worth mentioning is that of Mali, where the smallholder farmers got the introduction of genetically modified crop varieties banned in 2010 due to open dialogue through Citizen’s Jury with agricultural researchers and scientists.  Propositions made at this jury focused on value addition for traditional crop varieties like sorghum instead of working on other genetically modified crops which were artificially determined.  

The type of voice heard is also critical in achieving a transformed agricultural sector as are sustainable participatory approaches. Kurt Lewin often recognized as the “founder of social psychology” said, You cannot understand a system until you try to change it”. The rules of engaging minorities and smallholders in research adoption and policy discourse must change and evolve. Agricultural revolution on the continent may be missing a corner stone; active and sustainable farmer participation, representation, and engagement in research, market development and policy discourse. The voice heard may not be enough, until that voice counts. 


George Boateng is a research analyst at the African Center for Economic Transformation (ACET)

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