F9B: The Illustrated Series

Open the “Understanding Small Scale Farming in the Developing World” Poster


Hello, my name is Evan Fraser, and I work at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada.

This video series shows that climate change, population growth and high evergy prices mean that farmers may struggle to produce enough food for all of humanity over the next generation. This is the first of two videos on the situation that small scale farmers in the developing world face.

While most of us in the West think of small scale farmers as synonymous with the local food movement, and this conjures up images of envrionmentally sustainable farms and happy consumers buying virtuous, free range products, the reality of small scale farmers in the developing world is far less romantic. These are the poorest of the poor. People who live on less than a dollar twenty-five a day, and often have to support their families on less than two hectares of land. 

And there are lots of them. One billion people fall into this category, and women are disproportionately represented among this group. The United Nations figures that if these women simply had access to the same fertilizers and seeds as men, then their yields would be increased twenty to thirthy per cent, and this would be enough to pull about one hundred million people out of poverty.

A huge amount of work has gone into helping these people over the last fifty years. Most of this has been implemented by non-governmental organizations or NGOs, such as Oxfam, as well as major aid organizations, such as U.S.A.I.D or Canada's CIDA.

While there have been many successes, unfortunately a large number of these projects have not been as effective as they could be. I was confronted by the challenges of developing effective programs to help small scale farmers while on a recent trip to Rwanda.

On my first day in the country, I visited a World Bank official who told me about a major rice intensification project that they were working on. The World Bank official was justifiably proud at the way that they had collaborated with small scale farmers in fertile valleys in order to provide these farmers access to better quality seeds, fertilizers and other agricultural technologies. 

Thanks to these programs, yields in some areas had skyrocketed over a very short period of time. And this increased Rwanda's ability to produce rice, keeping prices stable and ensuring that the government no longer had to import as much rice from neighbouring countries.

But I heard a different story when I visited a small village on a nearby hillside. There I met with a group of HIV-positive women, who had been enrolled by the NGO Partners in Health in a clinic to prevent childhood malnutrition.

Partners in Health had worked with these women to develop small scale gardens, and had helped them obtain chickens, goats and rabbits that gave them a supply of manure, protein for their families and an additional item to sell. In short, these women had been allowed the opportunity to gain the skills they needed to pull themselves out of poverty.

In visiting these two projects, I found myself on the horns of a dilemma.

On one hand was the more right wing, market-oriented approach advocated by the World Bank official that prioritized modern agricultural inputs that boosted productivity.

On the other side of the coin was a more left wing, social justice-oriented approach that focused on training, capacity building and empowerment at a very small scale.

Both approaches seemed to work, but I also know both approaches are condemned.

For instance, critics of the market-oriented approaches argue that agricultural modernization strategies risk alienating and marginalizing the poorest and most vulnerable, who never get a chance to participate in, or benefit from such projects.

On the other hand, small scale capacity building projects are often criticized for being too small and insignificant in the face of a global food crisis where we are trying to feed nine billion people.

So which approach is better? That depends.

One one hand, we need the fertile areas of this world to  be farmed with cutting edge technologies that maximize production. This will create macroeconomic stability and ensure the world is being efficiently supplied.

But we also have to  acknowledge that the same approach won't work for small scale farmers who are already on marginal land. These people need approaches such as the one promoted by Partners in Health.

I think these strategies should be seen as if they were components of a well balanced investment portfolio, one that is strong through its diversity. What we need to do is blend large scale, productive, modern agricultural techniques with small scale, pro-poor capacity building projects as a way of promoting both macroeconomic stability and productivity as well as ensuring that the poor and most marginal are not left out of the picture.