Smallholder Farmer Voices – Challenges and Opportunities

October 30, 2019
The story of smallholder farmers in Africa, as in other developing countries in the last century, has been that of great transformation; essentially characterised by integrating peasant societies into market economies. The hallmark of peasant societies was predominantly subsistence economies producing what they consumed. Granted, barter exchanges among neighbouring communities helped fill seasonal gaps in goods and services.

With the advent of the modern market societies, smallholder agricultural producers have increasingly produced for the market and correspondingly relied on the market for goods and services.  Depending on varying circumstances, smallholder farmers have continued engaging respective markets as individual family units or through contract farming.  Either way, given their disaggregate characteristics, smallholder producers have found themselves disadvantaged in market exchanges; found it difficult defending their rights against more powerful forces in competition for natural resources; and found it challenging influencing policy formulation processes in their favour. To address this, smallholder producers have formed farmer groups to access technology, cooperatives to tilt market relations in their favour, community-based organisations to protect their rights, supported representatives in local, national and international fora to enhance their voices, and formed coalitions with local and international non-governmental organisations to influence policy in their favour.  While this kind of organised response has helped smallholder farmers cope with the challenging circumstances, their efforts have also been undermined by their limited access to market information, knowledge and skills to manage complex modern institutions, and disempowered by balkanised kinship, ethnic, religious and gender identities against better-organised, better-resourced and influential interest groups competing in the same social, economic and political spaces.

Selected Case Studies

For several decades now, there has been a lot of interest in building capacities for smallholder agricultural producer-voices to impact policy in their favour.  This has taken the form of enhanced organisation and representational capacities and opportunities.  The following are examples of such opportunities:

  1. Hooton, N.A., 2010 describes two case studies of actual policy change – on dairy marketing in Kenya, and on urban agriculture in Kampala – with analysis of the policy-change processes. The study highlights the critical role that ‘user voice’ can play in policy processes through links with civil society and ‘formal’ policy-process actors.
  2. Chwyns, E., 2014 illustrates how to support the voiceless to gain space in negotiation processes against competing interests, hierarchies etc. In this case, a local NGO builds negotiation skill for smallholder farmers, provides parallel sessions for negotiations with companies or their funders, assists in preparation of fliers summarising generalisable points for negotiations, and arranges alternative platforms for alternative political grammars. However, the study does not indicate the extent to which these processes help change policies in favour of smallholder producers.
  3. Chinsinga, B., 2012, reports on a study on fertilizer subsidy programme ostensibly targeting smallholder farmers, but without their direct engagement. Consequently, the programme ends up benefitting multiple interests, way beyond smallholder interests.  This case illustrates how political considerations override technical considerations in shaping policy choices in Malawi’s agricultural sector.  More specifically, the programme is used to access political power and to reward political supporters in procurement and distribution processes.
  4. Resnick, D. and Birner, R., 2010, highlights a case where participatory processes are used, including smallholder farmer voices, in parallel planning processes, resulting in non-funded projects. Perhaps the outcome would have been different had the participatory process been integrated into the existing government-owned policy formulation and implementation processes, to gain legitimacy and commensurate funding.  This case also highlights tension between smallholder farmer interests versus large-scale capital interests (e.g. commercialising land, import/export trade).
  5. Zapata, C., Vazquesz-Brust, D. and Plaza-Ubeda, J., 2010, report on a case in Brazil where smallholder agricultural producers are integrated into a biodiesel value chain. However, focus on technical support without commensurate socio-cultural innovations undermine involvement, trust and overall success of the programme. This case illustrates an example of ineffective engagement of smallholder voices in programme implementation.
  6. Spielman, D.J., K., Negash, M. and Ayele, B., 2011, present an analysis of rural innovation systems networks, essentially covering interactions between and among key actors in Ethiopian rural and agricultural sector. Within this context, smallholder farmers are interviewed alongside other actors. In that sense their voices are heard, but the focus remained on service provision rather than policy process.  Thus, findings concluded that public sector extension and administration play a crucial role in smallholder production systems in Ethiopia.
  7. Michael Pimbert, 2012, reports on action research intended to identify and support democratisation processes of food systems, land use and environment. In this context the following aspects of agricultural research are identified as entry points: agreement on priorities for plant breeding and seed selection, options for managing soil fertility, priorities for developing markets, agreement on governance, organisation, funding and practicing research, policies needed for transforming agriculture – e.g. land tenure, subsidies and investments and use of citizens’ juries to enhance smallholder voices.
  8. Excluded Voices presents an international initiative, co-funded by the Government of The Netherlands, Oxfam-Novib and the Christensen Fund, on making excluded voices count in food and agricultural policy making, with particular interest in agricultural research. The project covers four regions – West Africa (Mali), South Asia (India), West Asia (Iran) and the Andean region in Latin America (Bolivia/Peru). This global initiative commits to empowering marginalised voices (e.g. smallholder farmers, women and youth) to participate in decision making on food and agricultural research; and strengthening multi-disciplinary teams for more responsive work.
  9. Moser et al, 2001, Conway, 2001a, provide an insightful conceptual framework on how to integrate livelihood security, human rights and sustainable development. The report introduces useful concepts to visualise dimensions that facilitate or hinder sustainable development among disadvantaged populations, such as smallholder farmers.  It also characterises different levels of operation that would open doors for access to sustainable development.  While not addressing smallholder farmers’ voices directly, the conceptual framework can provide useful conceptual and analytical tools to create space for marginalised voices.
  10. Conway, T. Moser, C., Norton, A. and Farrington, J. 2002, argue that integrating rights and livelihood approaches complements high level/international, regional, national interests with community/household-level interests. This, in their view, would help step down high-level concepts to lower-level practical solutions affecting real people at specific points in time.


Whereas past efforts have left smallholder agricultural producers relatively well placed to engage other stakeholders in the market place and in policy processes, the reviewed case studies suggest that a lot more work needs to go into capacity building if their current disadvantages would be contained, and eventually reversed in their favour.  These case studies further suggest that the most effective approaches in this effort will need to be more holistic and participatory; essentially addressing individuals and groups among different smallholder agricultural producers, their partner organisations, national, regional and international policy fora, and government-led policy processes.

One way to build the capacities of smallholder farmers is not only to equip them with the requisite information to enable them to participate in activities along the value chain but also to provide platforms that represent and amplify their voices to policy makers. While cooperatives and other ways of organising are effective, digital platforms that allow smallholder voices to be heard will be increasingly relevant, especially as technological advancements progress. The African Center for Economic Transformation (ACET), is undertaking the OSF Smallholder Voice (SHV) project with a research grant from the Open Society Foundation (OSF), which seeks to promote informed agricultural policy dialogue focused on inclusivity and value creation among a wide range of stakeholders. As part of this study, ACET is conducting a Global Scan for innovative policy design to support smallholders, particularly the youth. The scan will identify successful and innovative efforts that strengthen linkages between policy design and small-holder interests in different areas across the agriculture value chain, specifically around market development.

This will culminate in the development of a virtual “smallholder policy marketplace”, an online portal where high-impact policies and approaches will be highlighted and shared with national policy dialogue platforms and the PACT agriculture chapter. It is expected to allow stakeholders to directly engage with key policy makers on issues of importance and also feed into other components of this project, including ACET’S Pan African Coalition for Transformation (PACT) chapter on agriculture and the Agricultural Transformation Policy Platform.


Adiel Nkonge Mbabu, Capdev Consultants, is the Senior Consultant on ACET’s OSF Global Scan project.


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