Small Scale farmers of Africa.

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When it comes to global food security and the development of smallholder farmers, we live in an era of lessons learned. Never before have we understood as much about what does work and what does not.

However, despite the efforts and successes of programmes designed to share best practices and initiatives to foster market connections, smallholders – with their ties to families, communities and whole-food chains – continue to face an uphill climb against isolation, stubborn poverty and climate change.

Yet today, more than ever, there is fresh hope for sustainable and affordable solutions that can scale. In the combination of successful grassroots interventions with the promise of technological approaches connected to the digital economy, there exists unprecedented opportunity. With adaptable and data-rich platforms, the benefits of information technology can be delivered as never before into the hands of farmers no matter their location, connecting them to best practices, agricultural science and markets – all at a significantly reduced cost compared to traditional development.

If global development work has taught us anything, it is that the solution will not be one size fits all. As agricultural technology platforms proliferate, the question remains how to ensure tailored, local solutions that build on decades of development wisdom. Top-down solutions rarely endure, as they often fail to take into account local factors and points of view. At the same time, flourishing models of farmer development face the continual challenge of scale.

Is technology the solution? And if so, how can we determine an equitable approach that helps to usher in a Fourth Industrial Revolution and avoids skewing in favour of industrial and large-scale farming?

Rooted in on-the-ground experience, we must reach for cloud technology. We must start by building on successful smallholder programmatic interventions like ours while borrowing from such exponentially scalable technological approaches that can work on a local level while having a human face. Such a system requires less ongoing funding while providing richer, more adaptable data and knowledge for every stakeholder in the food supply chain.

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A sustainable end-to-end solution that combines development learnings of the past with technologies of the future could connect smallholder farmers to local and global markets, lifting livelihoods and increasing food security. In such a model, empowered local farmers will serve as the basis of food and nutritional security locally, while supplying local and global markets, and helping to ensure environmental stability and conservation.

In today’s world, we are racing against time and that’s why linear growth solutions may no longer be sufficient. With the latest technological tools at hand, we have the power to enhance and change old structures with new solutions to enable exponential growth and impact.

After years of under-investment agriculture is back in the spotlight, with much of the focus on increasing output from smallholder farmers. There are around 500 million smallholder farmers in the world, and they produce up to 80% of the food consumed in Africa and Asia. They are net buyers of food and very vulnerable to food price increases and spikes. As a group, they are among the poorest and most marginalized in the world. They are also stewards of increasingly scarce natural resources and on the frontline of dealing with the impacts of climate change. Smallholders therefore play a critical role in addressing the challenges of food security, poverty and climate change. Africa’s smallholder farmers face many challenges preventing them from scaling up their participation in markets, including insecure rights to land and natural resources, lack of access to quality inputs and financial services, inadequate support from research and extension services, and high transaction costs caused by poor rural infrastructure. Smallholders have little say in policy decisions that impact on their lives, or in the design of research agendas. In addition, domestic and international markets for agricultural produce are changing rapidly and dramatically, with smaller producers finding it increasingly hard to participate in these markets.

Challenges are even greater for women farmers, who constitute the majority of farmers in Africa. International efforts to support smallholder farmers tend to follow a conventional approach to boosting agricultural productivity, with much of the emphasis on commercialising agriculture using modern inputs and encouraging integration of smallholders into agricultural value chains, particularly those producing for export markets. However, evidence suggests that only a small group of wealthier and better-connected smallholders are currently likely to be able to benefit from opportunities created in this way. For the majority of small-scale farmers, and particularly those that are more marginalised, including women farmers, different forms of support are needed to facilitate their greater participation in markets as a means of increasing food security at the national and household level.

Johanel ANN