Saturday, October 13

"Africa has plenty of land. Why is it so hard to make a living from it?"

The Economist
April 28, 2018

Subsistence farmers cannot compete with commercial farms

SURROUNDED by tangled shrubland, Wisdom Mababe’s farm in central Zambia seems incongruously neat. “In 2002, when I started, it was bare bush,” he says. Each year since, he has bulldozed an area the size of 40 football pitches. Maize grows in ordered rows; cattle graze behind a fence. “The land, the water, it’s in abundance,” he gushes. Beyond his fields, the tall grass waves.

For most of its history, sub-Saharan Africa has been short of people, not land. In 2011 the World Bank estimated that the region had 200m hectares of suitable land that was not being used for crops—almost half of the world’s total, and more than the cultivated area of America. That potential excites many. “Africa is the future breadbasket of the world,” says Ephraim Nkonya of the International Food Policy Research Institute, a think-tank in Washington, DC.

Yet such aggregate figures may deceive. Most of Africa’s spare land lies in just a few big countries, such as Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. In densely populated places (with more than 100 people per square kilometre of farmland), average farm sizes have shrunk by a third since the 1970s. The continent is already a net importer of food; by 2050 it may have twice as many bellies to fill. In hotspots like central Nigeria, clashes between crop-growing farmers and herders have killed thousands. Doom-mongers see a larger crisis brewing.

From Mr Mababe’s tranquil farm, such fears seem distant. Only a fifth of land in his district is being used, reckons the council chairman. A German company has bought 40,000 hectares of private land to grow maize and soya beans. The government is trying to lure other commercial outfits to designated “farm blocks” around a country twice as big as Germany, with fewer people than the Netherlands.

But even here, land is scarcer than it seems. The western half of the district is a national park. Locals complain that heavy-handed rangers on private game ranches stop them fishing and picking mushrooms. “This land we are in here, it’s not ours,” says one villager, “it’s for people who have money.” 

Human Rights Watch says that poor people in other districts are being evicted by commercial farms.

Despite talk of Africa’s unused land, few places are truly empty. “On a map it is like that,” says Mbumwae Nyambe, a paralegal with the Catholic church. “But when you go in the field you find there are already people there.”

Uncultivated land is used for grazing, foraging or hunting. Occupiers are often surprised to hear themselves labelled as squatters. In northern Uganda people returning home after being displaced by war found their “empty” fields had been dished out among generals, tycoons and conservationists.

Perhaps a tenth of Africa’s cultivated land is now in the hands of big business, which uses most of it for biofuels, timber and other non-food crops. As significant is the rise of mid-size farms (those between five and 100 hectares), often owned by civil servants in the cities. “They have the political connections,” says Thomas Jayne of Michigan State University. Many are not serious farmers. Those who own more than 20 hectares often leave most of it idle.

Middling farms now cover more of Zambia than small ones. Meanwhile squeezed smallholders farm their shrinking plots too intensively, degrading already poor soils. This happens even in spacious countries because people are concentrated along roads and in towns.

This presents a conundrum. Better seeds and fertiliser, as well as niftier techniques, could send Africa’s farm yields soaring. But mechanised commercial farms do not provide as many jobs as subsistence agriculture. Most Africans still live in the countryside. That life there is so tough is why they are abandoning it faster than people on any other continent.




sykes.1 said...

A subsistence farmer, by definition, produces little or no surplus beyond his families needs. He does not in any way compete with commercial farmers who produce crops for the market.

Because there is no surplus, whatever the farmer has he has to make himself. In a pure subsistence farm, this leads to abject poverty. But in every known civilization, farmers do produce surpluses (above need), and they are able to buy or trade for goods.

As to Africa, subsistence farmers have been producing a bare living for several thousand years. More correctly called horticulture (gardening), it is practiced by single women heads of households without male participation. This is the norm throughout much of Africa, and it is the basis of the so-called broken black family, families without males. Horticulture requires only light physical labor to scratch out (literally) shallow furrows for seeds. No male labor is needed. Since the land yields crops year round, there is no need for large scale, over winter storage. This is a stark contrast to the farming practiced throughout Eurasian, with its distinct seasons and single crop years.

All civilizations, from the very first in southern Turkey 10,000 years ago, depend on agricultural surpluses. Originally, and until very recently, these surpluses were extracted by force by the Ruling Class. Over the last few hundred years or so, farmers have been able to sell their surpluses, and they became commercial farmers.

This series seems to be based on sloppy terminology.

Pundita said...

If by "this series" you mean my posts on farming -- here is what I wrote in the first of the series:

"1. There are basically two types of farming: commercial, which is simply the raising of produce for sale, and subsistence, whereby the farmer raises enough produce to sustain himself and his family and sells or barters any surplus.

There is also what could be called the quasi farming method, whereby the farmer raises some produce for personal consumption and also raises a 'cash crop' for sale, but this is really commercial farming with a nod to subsistence farming."

The rest of your remarks are also poorly informed -- so much so I hardly know where to begin to correct your understanding. I will note here that the Economist was covering a lot of ground -- literally -- in their brief discussion, so they didn't make it crystal clear that of course the subsistence farmer is in competition with the large-scale commercial farmer when it comes to selling surplus; he can't hope to get as high a price as the big commercials. There is a way to solve the problem, which is through networking, which I have already explained in earlier posts.

As for your remark about women being the farmers -- yes while the men hunt, forage, fish, and herd.

Today only three countries in Africa permit subsistence hunting. The point is that for thousands and thousands of years, Africans were able to feed themselves quite well through subsistence approaches. And these weren't 'broken' families.

I could go down the rest of the list, sentence by sentence, to continue to point out that your remarks are poorly informed but I'm a defense analyst, not a teacher. Either keep up or fall behind; I do not care either way.