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Politics at Centre of Poor Agriculture Performance


What ails smallholder agriculture, the dominant type of agriculture in Africa? Smallholder farmers count among the poorest Africans. How could they be pulled out of poverty? Many factors contribute to the poor performance of agriculture in Africa, but politicians’ lack of intentionality in enabling smallholder agriculture to become productive appears as the most important one.

It is easy to think of increasing small farmers’ incomes through technical fixes. Economists tend to think of incentives to spur farmers into producing for the market. Politicians almost always think that smallholder farming is by nature incapable of pulling the poor out of poverty, that the road to success is via the creation of large farms and the mechanisation of agriculture. They usually talk up the imperative to aggregate land and create large commercial farms to create employment and boost production for local consumption and export. There are numerous stories of ambitious agricultural modernisation projects and programmes across Africa during the early years of independence. They invariably failed and when they did, all they left behind were carcasses of tractors, combine harvesters and other machinery, as well as shattered aspirations.

Interestingly, across East Asia, many agriculture success stories show that governments were intentional in focusing on enabling smallholder agriculture to become productive. It was a strategy not only to ensure that people were well-fed, but also that they had money in their pockets. The money would enable them to purchase imported and locally-produced goods and services which were necessary in raising their living standards and quality of life. Stories are told that this is how communism was rendered unattractive and prevented from spreading across the entire region. This kind of intentionality has been lacking across the African continent, leaving smallholder farmers struggling. These farmers have been the targets of anti-poverty programmes usually run by NGOs and donors for a long time. However, efforts by outsiders to plug the gaps left by inattentive governments have made little difference.    

By way of illustration, some years ago, while on a research trip to the Northern Uganda District of Kope (not actual name), I encountered an interesting event as I went about looking for local people to talk to about a well-funded post-war reconstruction programme whose results and impact were highly contested in media and academia. I had set off early. On the way to a trading centre not so far away from the main town, I saw a large number of people walking along the highway that connects the district to Uganda’s capital, Kampala. They were accompanied by animals of different kinds. Some carried chickens in their hands, others in baskets. Some had dogs on chains. Others were carrying cats. Others had goats, sheep, pigs and cattle on ropes. Some were chaperoning whole herds of livestock, goats and sheep with sticks and canes. I wondered what had happened. Was it market day? Soon enough I came across an open field where they were all gathering. I looked closely. This was no market scene. I stopped and asked a young man with a handful of goats on ropes, what was happening.

The crowd before me had brought their animals to be vaccinated. In the distance, I caught sight of white people in military uniforms. They were the ones doing the vaccinating. Overcome by curiosity, I decided to go and take a closer look. It was a group of American soldiers. They belonged to Africom, the US army’s Africa Command. They were on some kind of outreach. Why here, though? And why livestock vaccination? They were busy, so I decided not to bother them with questions. Off I went, feeling intrigued, and contemplating further what I had just witnessed. I had not witnessed anything similar in the many years I had been traversing the country on research trips. And I knew from personal experience and from observation that the lack of veterinary services in rural areas was a serious impediment to successful animal husbandry by small-scale farmers. That afternoon, after I had finished chatting with villagers about their lives and livelihoods and the controversial reconstruction programme, I headed back to town. I wanted to locate the district veterinary officer and ask him some questions about what I had witnessed that morning. When I eventually found him, the district veterinary officer graciously agreed to set aside time for a conversation. After the usual greetings and introductions, I narrated the story of what I had seen that morning. He listened attentively. How did the Americans come to be in the district, doing what was supposed to be the work of the district administration? Why had he or others from his department not been at the scene when the Americans were working? Did his department carry out similar exercises across the district?

The Americans had approached the district administration and volunteered to do what they were doing. His department did not carry out such exercises. The main reason for not doing so was that the veterinary department did not have the financial resources necessary to engage in such an exercise. They had no money for the required drugs. They had no vehicles that could transport staff around the district. They had only one motorcycle which was for his use as head of the department. They might have borrowed vehicles from other departments. However, the district administration did not always have money for fuel. Also, there was the challenge of remuneration. For such an exercise to be carried out by local government personnel, there had to be money for field allowances for his staff. There was no money for that. The reason I had seen such a large number of people turning up to have their animals vaccinated was twofold. First, like elsewhere in the country, it was quite common for animals to die of diseases that mass vaccination easily prevents. So, when people heard that there was an opportunity to have their animals vaccinated, they saw a chance to save their animals. It was therefore not surprising that they turned up in such large numbers. Perhaps most significant was that the vaccination was free of charge. Had the Americans been charging money, fewer people would have turned up. Few people in rural areas where the majority are subsistence farmers, have much disposable cash and can afford paid-for services.

All this brought to mind things that are usually said about agriculture in Africa, but which are rarely cognisant of the realities of rural life, and of local-level governance. Hardly a day goes by without someone in a position of power or authority mentioning how agriculture is “the biggest employer” and “the backbone of our economy”. However, in Africa agriculture as an employer and as a generator of income performs way below its potential. There are several reasons for this, lack of intentionality being key. Take the example of extension services. Almost everywhere, these services suffer significant neglect. In addition to neglect, where services are available, however limited, they tend to be priced beyond what ordinary farmers farming mainly for subsistence can afford on an on-going basis. The consequences of this are clear and visible. Many years ago, I asked a farmer in a district not so far away from Kampala: “when did you last see or interact with an agricultural extensionist (omulimisa)?” As far as he could remember, it was nearly 30 years before he and I met in his village, where I was looking at the impact of decentralising power, resources and responsibility for service delivery from the national government to elected local authorities.

The absence of extensionists or the un-affordably high cost of their services means that few small- to medium scale farmers are unable to respond appropriately to disease and pest infestations that reduce productivity. When diseases or pests strike, farmers may not respond in good time to allow for appropriate intervention to make the necessary difference. And even when they respond in time, critical advice regarding appropriate response is usually lacking. There are simply too few extensionists to go round, and the services of those that are self-employed are too expensive for poor farmers. For farmers engaged in animal husbandry, disease outbreaks are all too common. The most common diseases are those that are easily preventable through vaccination or the administration of de-wormers and acaricides. There is a time, in Uganda at least, when communal cattle dips providing free services guaranteed that farmers’ animals were protected. It is many years since these disappeared.

Clearly, at the centre of the poor performance of agriculture in Africa and the key explanation for farmers getting stuck in poverty is politics. Politicians simply lack the incentives to focus on agriculture with the kind of intentionality that their Asian counterparts did, at a time when poverty posed a major political threat to the elites in power and was also an existential threat to anti-communist regimes of the time. It is therefore perhaps not farfetched to argue that agriculture in Africa will not receive the attention it deserves until its continued neglect becomes a political threat for power holders and a potential source of destabilisation for sitting governments.  


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