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Participatory Ecological Land-Use Management (PELUM) Zambia

Small holder agriculture: Ignored gold mine?

PELUM Zambia Policy Brief - Issue No. 1

Clement Chipokolo

January 2006

SARPN acknowledges Participatory Ecological Land-Use Management (PELUM) Zambia as the source of this document:
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'Small fish make up the lake and feed the fisherman.'
Niliotic proverb

This policy briefing seeks to answer the following questions:

  • Does the smallholder farmer sector have the capacity to be looked at as a platform of economic and agricultural development or is it just a way of life?
  • Is it possible for small holder agriculture to generate its own resources and develop in a sustainable way?
  • What can be done to build the capacity of the small holder farmer?
In the last decade, Zambia has seemingly become heavily dependant on institutionalized external food assistance to meet its ever growing annual food deficits. The year 2005 was not an exception as the country faced a food deficit of about 300 000 metric tonnes. To meet the food shortfall, the country mobilised food from international donor agencies and partners. It is important to note that during this same period, there has been superlative talk about increasing agriculture production.

The issues constituting and surrounding the problem of food security may appear complex and certainly intractable but they are manageable and soluble. The country only needs action at the level of policy implementation, an assertive and committed role at the level of the professional and policy maker and a freer and a more decisive participation at the level of small scale farmer.

Smallholder agriculture plays an important role in Zambia agriculture in terms of its contribution to people's livelihoods and to economic development. However, in Zambia's economic policies, small farmers have been left out in the cold. While the rest of the world has been busy investing in its rural areas and in agriculture, and increasing its competitiveness, Zambia has seemingly been standing still and idling. One sees this is crop yields. The average yield of cereals and many traditional export crops (e.g. tobacco and cotton) has barely increased; while there have been very sizeable increases elsewhere.

The answer is not to further neglect agriculture and small farms; rather it is to start making the right investments at the right levels to get our small holder farmers back into the game. In most cases if not all, it is the only real game that they can play.

Given the current emphasis on MDGs, especially the halving of poverty and hunger by 2015, a strong case could be made for massive and direct investments in Africa's smallest and poorest farmers as a direct and effective way of achieving those goals.

Small holder farmers are vital for Zambia's agriculture and rural economy. Small holder farmers defined as those marginal and sub marginal farm households that own or/and cultivate less than 2.0 hectare of land constitute about 52% of the country's farmers. It important to note that 10 years ago, small scale farmers accounted for well over 65% of the population. There has been a relative decrease in their numbers as the continually migrate to the cities in search of other forms of livelihood considering the decrease in farming profitability. It is thus disappointing that notwithstanding their substantial potential to contribute to the national food supply and to agricultural GDP, these small holder families nonetheless constitute a third of the nation's hungry and poor. Policies and programmes to lessen poverty and food insecurity, and to enhance equity and sustainability of incomes and livelihoods, should thus seek to achieve an agriculture led broad based economic development and to do so by according highest priority to small scale agriculture.

Factual evidence has shown that agricultural development is a contributor to global poverty reduction. A lot of studies done elsewhere confirm this fact. Irz et al., (2001) cite a wide range of empirical studies showing how agricultural growth has promoted poverty reduction. They show a strong negative correlation between agricultural yields and poverty across samples both of developing countries in general and African countries in particular. Fan et al., (2004) show how a range of different types of investments in India in the 1960s and 1970s had major poverty reduction impacts as a result of the stimulus they provided to agricultural growth. Gallup et al., (1997) estimate higher returns, in terms of poverty reduction, from agricultural investment compared to otherforms of investment.

Worldwide there have been dramatic increases in agricultural production over the last 40 or 50 years (with annual increases in agricultural production averaging 2.3% from 1965 1998), and in Asia and Africa much of this growth has been in smallholder agriculture.
However, in sub Saharan Africa, Zambia inclusive, agricultural output grew slower than overall population growth between 1965 and 2004. in anything, sub Saharan Africa is still achieving its agricultural growth more through expansion of cultivated areas than through yield increases, while in other parts of the world almost all growth is the result of yield increases. For Zambia, this is seen in the number of people that have 'gone back to the land' after being retrenched and retired from their jobs. Ashley and Maxell (2001:395) note that, 'Poverty is not only wide spread in the rural areas but most poverty is rural,......yet these core problems appear to have been neglected.

The questions to be asked here are: is the continuance of hunger and rural poverty in Zambia a consequence of the smallness of the preponderant majority of the country's farmers? Is it possible to increase the productivity of those small farms as to allow the small holder farmers and the nation with them to escape from hunger and poverty?

To the first question, my answer is a straight YES. I shall however focus my thoughts and arguments in support of positive answer to the second question. This answer is driven by hope. But the hope will be realized only when the small holders are empowered to access the crucial production resources. These resources are several: land, water, energy, and credit; appropriate technologies, and opportunities to develop the skills and to access the information wherewith to use them; functional and fair markets for products and inputs; health care and sanitation; and education reproductive and social services.

Delgado (1998:1) writes that,'small holder agriculture is simply too important to employment, human welfare and political stability to be either ignored or treated as just another small adjusting sector of a market economy.' In other words, this sector is the core of an agrarian economy like the one Zambia wants to build.

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