The African Smallholder Farmers Group, a network of international organisations that share a common commitment to working with and learning from smallholder farmers in Africa, has recently developed a framework that sets out the range of “policies, laws, regulations and practices that can support Africa’s smallholder farmers in becoming market ready and help them sustain their market participation”. Given that smallholder farmers comprise the “backbone of economic activity” in Africa, understanding the policies and practices that enable the development of their farms and links to markets can help guide policymakers and practitioners in their work.
Smallholder farmers produce up to 80% of the food consumed around the world and yet they face a myriad of challenges not least limited access to markets, land, financial services, infrastructure and extension. Given their size, smallholder farmers may find it difficult to compete in changing and increasingly global markets, particularly when faced with the threats of climate change and resource scarcity.
Traditionally support to such farmers has been in the form of assistance in commercialising with a view to supplying often niche export markets, markets which only a small proportion of smallholders can serve. It is crucial therefore to investigate other forms of market participation that can benefit all smallholders, including those often marginalised.
The framework, developed through a literature review, case studies and survey, outlines the foundations of a supportive rural policy environment around three key themes: rural infrastructure, rural public services and the rural investment climate. For each theme, questions have been devised to indicate whether national, regional or global systems of governance are providing an enabling policy environment for smallholder farmers.
The framework also contains ‘pillars’, issues that are central to the productivity and sustainability of smallholder farms: access to land and water; inputs and credit; markets; research and extension; and collective action. Again a series of questions enables decision makers to understand how their policies facilitate the services crucial to smallholders.
Finally the framework addresses cross-cutting issues that affect both the rural environment and smallholder farmers: gender equity, climate change and food security. These issues should be considered across all policies relevant to the agricultural sector.
Together the framework adds up to a simple and easy to understand checklist. While not exhaustive it goes some way in clarifying the types of broad policies that can support the economic development of smallholder farmers in Africa.