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. As anyone who has followed this video series knows, climate change, population growth, and high-energy prices mean that farmers may struggle over the next generation to produce enough food for everyone.

In this video, I will explore the challenges faced by smallholder farmers across the developing world. Smallholder farmers are farmers that often farm less than two hectares of land [1], earn less than a dollar 25 per day [2], and are predominantly women [3]. This group, and there are well over a billion of such people [4], are also amongst the most vulnerable to climate change, economic globalization [5].

Let’s start with what these farmers need: first of all they need their farms to produce a stable quantity of food, they also need better incomes, and they need decent diets.  But their incomes and also their diets are linked with food prices [6], which are generally determined by international markets.

To produce food, small-scale farmers need access to good-quality inputs, they need good-quality soil, and they need a functioning and productive climate. They also need access to land [7].

The price of inputs is often determined by the international price of energy [8] because farm inputs like fertilizers are very energy intensive, [9]therefore, many small-scale farmers simply can’t afford expensive modern agricultural inputs [10]. This is one of those factors that is beyond the ability of the farmer to control.

Similarly, the weather is something that farmers can’t control and as we move forward in the 21st-century, and into a world of more severe climate change, the weather is likely to become less predictable [11].

Finally, access to land is another area that is completely outside of the control of the small-scale farmer. They need to have secure land tenure, which is very unlikely for some of the world’s poorest and most marginal [12]. What’s more, as food prices rise, international businesses increasingly are buying up productive land across the developing world [13] displacing small-scale farmers in the process.

As a result, one of the few areas that smallholder farmers can control is that of soil health and in particular organic matter. By investing in manure or small-scale livestock, smallholder farmers can build up the organic matter in their soil and this helps boost crop productivity and also makes them more drought-tolerant because organic matter acts like a sponge holding moisture in the soil [14].

Another problem smallholder farmers face when trying to increase productivity is where to get the capital to buy modern agricultural inputs. For instance, in parts of the world where there are no banks or credit unions, it is very difficult for farmers to obtain the capital to buy even fertilizer let alone herbicides pesticides and improved seeds [15]. Farmers, therefore, sometimes go into debt at exorbitant rates of interest to loan sharks to buy inputs and if crops fail they have no way of paying back their loans [16].

As a result, promoting modern agricultural inputs, in the absence of financial institutions, may result in worse income and greater volatility [17].

Similarly, smallholder farmers struggle with access to markets.  They generally lack storage and processing facilities. And they struggle to distribute and market their produce [18].

Another critical factor that influences smallholder farmers is that of international labor migration. In many parts of the developing world, people have left small farms in search of better paying jobs in richer parts of the world [19]. In some regards this can help by providing a source of income back to people on the farms. But such changes also make it harder to obtain decent harvests at home because there isn’t labour available [20].

Next we have to think about the effect of both global population change, as well as the fact that people in Asia are eating a lot of meat [21]. These factors have driven up food prices [22] and paradoxically this hurts smallholder farmers who typically sell very little of what they produce but still have to buy things they cannot make locally.

So what can be done to help?

One strategy is to help improve soil health by building up organic matter, recycling crop residues, or promoting mixed crop and livestock production together [23].

Another strategy is to work with farmers to set up financial instruments such as co-ops and loaning circles to help farmers build up the capital they need to invest in their farms while not exposing them to horrendous financial risks [24].

Working to set up storage and processing facilities so that food will last long enough to get to markets is another crucial piece of the puzzle that needs to be addressed.

Developing labour saving techniques so that farmers can continue farming while  members of their family immigrate in search of better paying jobs is another important strategy.

But whatever strategy is embarked upon, two factors need to be considered. The first is that everything is connected. Developing new agricultural inputs in the absence of financial instruments that can provide low-cost loans or crop insurance is unlikely to result in meaningful development [25].  As a result, policy makers, activists and practitioners need to keep in mind the big picture of the context that smallholder farmers operate under.

The second is that before we develop any new strategies or techniques to help smallholder farmers we need to include those same smallholder farmers in any decision-making process. This means that the tools and techniques of farming must be developed [26].


[1] This speech was presented to the IFAD and outlines the characteristics of smallholder farming in developing nations, as well as the challenges these farmers are likely to face given declining soil and water quality. This presentation also outlines several possible solutions and mitigation strategies that could be implemented to make smallholder farming more successful.

Conway, Gordon. On Being a Smallholder. Rep. International Fund for Agricultural Development, 25 Jan. 2011. Web. 22 Feb. 2014. <>.

[2] Investing in new agricultural technologies or planting new seed varieties is often an essential step in order for smallholder farmers to be successful. In this speech, the President of the IFAD describes some of the barriers preventing smallholder farmers from taking these risks.

Nwanze, Kanayo F. “Statement by IFAD President.” Speech. NEPAD-IFAD Workshop on Mainstreaming Agriculture and Food Security Risk Management in CAAPD Implementation. Italy, Rome. 3 Dec. 2013. IFAD. International Fund for Agricultural Development. Web. 22 Feb. 2014. <>.

[3] When designing technology for smallholder farmers, it is important to remember that these tools will likely be used by women, and the tools must be culturally appropriate for the populations where they are introduced. This article published by an extension of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation describes some of the common roadblocks preventing the adoption of labour-saving technologies by smallholder farmers.

“Labor Saving Strategies and Innovations for Women Smallholder Farmers.” Grand Challenges in Global Health. N.p., Mar. 2013. Web. 22 Feb. 2014. <….

[4] More intensive farming strategies are known to increase food production, however these practices often lead to devastating environmental externalities. This report by the United Nations suggests ways in which smallholder farmers can increase food production while being both environmental stewards and promoting local economic development.

Walpole, Matt. Smallholders, Food Security, and the Environment. Rep. United Nations Environment Program, 2013. Web. 22 Feb. 2014. <>.

[5] Climate change will lead to innumerable challenges for smallholder farmers – one of the most serious of which may be water shortages. This report discusses the future of smallholder farmers in the context of climate change, as well as several mitigation strategies that could be adopted to lessen the effects of future droughts.

Ngigi, Stephen N. Climate Change Adaptation Strategies: Water Resources Management Options for Smallholder Farming Systems in Sub-Saharan Africa. Rep. New York: Columbia University, 2009. Rockefeller Foundation, Dec. 2009. Web. 23 Feb. 2014. <….

[6] Smallholder farmers are the major food producers in most developing nations; in order to improve regional diets and ensure food security, it is essential to support these farmers. This report by the FAO highlights recent international policies aimed at improving the productivity of smallholder farms.

Mahaman Dioula, Bader, Hélène Deret, Julien Morel, Etienne Du Vachat, and Victor Kiaya. Enhancing the Role of Smallholder Farmers in Achieving Sustainable Food and Nutrition Security. Rep. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2013. Web. 23 Feb. 2014. <>.

[7] Countless smallholder farmers throughout Eastern Africa are beginning to take steps to protect their livelihoods from climate change, however, many farmers remain too poor to afford investments for the future. This website summarizes the new agricultural technologies being adopted by smallholder farmers, as well as challenges they continue to face, and other agricultural practices which could be adopted to increase yields.

CGIAR. Climate Change, Agriculture, and Food Security. Landmark Survey Finds Adaptation to Climate Change on Smallholder Farms Taking RootCCAFS. University of Copenhagen, 7 Sept. 2012. Web. 23 Feb. 2014. <….

[8] Over the past several decades, the prices of food and oil have risen and fallen in tandem. Not only are fossil fuels essential for the production of agricultural chemicals, but the global food system is highly dependent on oil to power complex food transportation networks. Here is a non-academic article that does a nice job at summarizing these issues: “How Oil Prices Affect the Price of Food.” How Oil Prices Affect the Price of Food. Oil Price, 21 Dec. 2011. Web. 31 Mar. 2014. <….

[9] Manufacturing fertilizer is an extremely energy intensive process that requires vast amounts of fossil fuel inputs. Fossil fuels are also integral to other parts of the food system, and this academic article demonstrates the extent of the current system’s reliance on fossil fuels.

Tomczak, Jay. “Implications of Fossil Fuel Dependence for the Food System.” Energy Bulletin. Tompkins Country Relocalization Project, 11 Dec. 2005. Web. 2 Mar. 2014. <>.

[10] This article provides a case study from the nation of Swaziland, and it demonstrates the economic burden of agricultural inputs for smallholder farmers. “Swazi Farmers Struggle to Afford Inputs.” IRINnews. UN Office for the Coordination of Human Affairs, 9 Jan. 2013. Web. 02 Mar. 2014. <….

[11] With individual farming operations entirely dependent on seasonal weather patterns, climate change poses major risks to smallholder farmers. This article by The World Bank emphasizes the importance of developing more effective weather forecasting technologies in order to support farmers.

Kowalczyk, Anna, and Michael Jones. “As Climate Change Makes Weather More Unpredictable, Improving Forecasting Is Vital to Crops, Disaster Mitigation.” The World Bank. United Nations, 6 Dec. 2008. Web. 02 Mar. 2014. <….

[12] Land ownership among smallholder farmers can greatly influence the characteristics of agricultural communities. This report outlines the environmental and economic benefits of land tenure, as well as the challenges smallholder farmers in Mozambique face when purchasing their own farmland.

Hagos, Hosaena Ghebru. Tenure (In)security and Agricultural Investment of Smallholder Farmers in Mozambique. Working paper. International Food Policy Research Institute, Dec. 2012. Web. 2 Mar. 2014. <….

[13] The process of foreign investors purchasing arable farmland is often said to be a new form of colonialism. This short article and infographic demonstrate the extent of “land grabbing” that is currently taking place in the developing world. “‘Land Grabbing’: Foreign Investors Buy Up Third World Farmland.” Der Spiegel 19 Feb. 2013: n. pag. Der Spiegel: Online, English Edition. Der Spiegel, 19 Feb. 2013. Web. 2 Mar. 2014. <….

[14] This article by the FAO outlines the dramatic effect that increasing soil organic matter can have on drought tolerance and reduced soil erosion.

“The Importance of Soil Organic Matter: Creating Drought-resistant Soil.” Natural Resources Management and Environment Department. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, n.d. Web. 03 Mar. 2014. <>.

[15] The use of inorganic fertilizers can greatly increase crop yields and incomes of smallholder farmers, however the initial purchase of fertilizers is often too much of an economic investment for poor families. This report by IFPRI documents the large-scale investment required to purchase fertilizer in the developing world, as well as suggestions to make inorganic fertilizer accessible to more smallholders. Benson, Todd, Bendidito Cunguara, and Tewodaj Mogues. The Supply of Inorganic Fertilizers to Smallholder Farmers in Mozambique Evidence for Fertilizer Policy Development. Rep. Washington D.C.: n.p., 2012. The Supply of Inorganic Fertilizers to Smallholder Farmers in Mozambique Evidence for Fertilizer Policy Development. International Food Policy Research Institute, Dec. 2012. Web. 2 Mar. 2014. <….

In a tragic number of cases, the debts taken on by farmers are subsequently linked with farmer-suicide. Here is a UN slide show on this topic:

[16] Microcredit has been heralded as the solution to global poverty, but this process designed to foster sustainable development has run into problems with corruption. Drawn by the potential for quick profits, banks and private institutions now dominate the field of microcredit, often charging interest rates of 100% or more, pushing the already poor deeper into poverty.

MacFarquhar, Neil. “Banks Making Big Profits From Tiny Loans.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 16 Apr. 2010. Web. 31 Mar. 2014. <….

[17] Providing smallholder farmers with financial security is a crucial step in protecting these people from the impacts of climate change and other uncertainties. This report gives a detailed explanation of the benefits of providing financial institutions to smallholders.

Local Bank Financing: A $9 Billion Drop in the Ocean. Rep. The Initiative for Smallholder Finance, 24 Oct. 2013. Web. 2 Mar. 2014. <>.

[18] Smallholder farmers must face innumerable challenges before becoming profitable; this news article published by the United Nations suggests more effective government policies which would better support smallholder farmers in finding access to markets and storage facilities. “Policymakers Need to Create More Opportunities for Small Farmers, UN Report.” UN News Center. United Nations, 03 July 2013. Web. 02 Mar. 2014. <>.

[19] Page 25 of this report highlights the forces that have led to high rates of migrant workers in agriculture, as well as the impact that this type of work has on families of agricultural workers.

Hurst, Peter. Agricultural Workers and Their Contribution to Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development. Rep. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2007. Web. 2 Mar. 2014. <….

[20] Using case studies from rural China, this paper explores the effect on agriculture of labour shortages caused by rural-urban migration. Labour shortages were found to be most pronounced during the peak planting and harvesting seasons, and small farmers struggled to hire day labourers due to high demand and rising wages.

Liu, Kan. “Impact of Rural-to-Urban Migration on Agricultural Commodity Inflation in China.” Thesis. University of California, Berkeley, 2011. Impact of Rural-to-Urban Migration on Agricultural Commodity Inflation in China. Department of Economics, University of California, Spring 2011. Web. 31 Mar. 2014. <….

[21] The global livestock sector is growing rapidly, and consumption of animal protein is rising particularly fast in Eastern Asia. This article by the WHO summarizes recent meat consumption trends, and also offers projections of per-capita livestock-product consumption for various world regions in the year 2030.

“Global and Regional Food Consumption Patterns and Trends.” World Health Organization. United Nations, n.d. Web. 03 Mar. 2014. <>.

[22] Raising livestock requires vast inputs of grains and water for feed, so the increased global consumption of meat directly raises the costs of purchasing staple foods like maize or soy. This article published by The Guardian suggests that if developed nations reduced their weekly meat consumption, food security would be increased in poorer regions of the world.

Harvey, Fiona. “Eat Less Meat for Greater Food Security, British Population Urged.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited, 4 June 2013. Web. 3 Mar. 2014. <….

[23] This document prepared by the FAO compares agricultural practices that decrease levels of organic matter in the soil with methods of farming that can be adopted to increase soil health and thereby improve drought tolerance and crop health.

The Importance of Soil Organic Matter Key to Drought-resistant Soil and Sustained Food Production. Rep. no. 0253-2050. Rome: n.p., 2005. The Importance of Soil Organic Matter Key to Drought-resistant Soil and Sustained Food Production. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2005. Web. 2 Mar. 2014. <>.

[24] Farming cooperatives give smallholder farmers the support of community investments in markets and agricultural inputs, giving individual families greater security against the risks involved with small-scale farming. This press release by IFAD highlights the increased local food security associated with agricultural cooperatives.

International Fund for Agricultural Development. Agricultural Cooperatives Are Key to Reduce Hunger and PovertyInternational Fund for Agricultural Development. United Nations, 31 Oct. 2011. Web. 03 Mar. 2014. <>.

[25] This report outlines the key role of crop insurance and small loans in the pursuit of sustainable development for smallholder farmers.

Selvavinayagam, K. Improving Rural Financial Markets For Developing Microenterprises. Rep. no. 2. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, June 1995. Web. 31 Mar. 2014. <>.

[26] Developing agricultural technologies in collaboration with smallholder farmers increases their adoption rate, as the tools are better suited to the needs of the farmers who will be using them. This report by the British think tank ODI summarizes a study that found that participatory technology development is an extremely effective method of improving farmer livelihoods in the developing world.

Conroy, Czech, and Alistair Sutherland. Participatory Technology Development With Resource-Poor Farmers: Maximizing Impact Through the Use of Recommendation Domains. 133. Agricultural Research & Extension Network, Jan. 2004. Web. 3 Mar. 2014. <….