By Terrence Leahy –

Over the last fifteen years my academic work and my field trips have focussed on food security projects in the rural areas of Southern and Eastern Africa, in countries which have in the past been colonised by Britain. I became aware of the situation in these rural areas through contact with my postgraduate students, many of whom have been agricultural officers dealing with village problems. Researching the situation on the ground I have spent months at a time in rural villages, staying with local people, and visiting agricultural sites. I have visited projects with agricultural officers and worked up close with NGOs dealing with these issues.

Poverty in these rural villages is extreme. Cropping for household food supply is common. However, it is unfortunately very typical that this cropping does not provide an adequate diet. There are hungry periods and diets are short of many essential nutrients. Unemployment is at seventy percent. Stunting in growth for children under five years old is a common measure of malnutrition. In countries in this region it ranges from 23 percent (Namibia) to 43 percent (Malawi) with about 30 percent being typical. This is all taking place despite economic growth rates that can go as high as 6 percent per annum.

My own research and that of my students shows me that most of the projects being run in the villages are not really working. Why do food security projects so often fail and why have they had such a small impact on rural poverty and malnutrition? What kinds of projects could work better to deal with these problems?

Subsistence agriculture (agriculture for household food provision) has been a key part of the economic structure of this region since colonial times. Low wages have meant that it was not possible for African men to earn enough to pay for their families to eat. Subsistence production has been an economic necessity. Paid work away from home provides for necessary cash income, while household food provision supplies the unemployed and the next generation of workers. A system of “worker-peasants and farmer housewives”.

The projects that have been started in the last fifty years to deal with food security problems of rural Africa are all “commercial” projects. They are informed by the idea that the subsistence farming that takes place in this region must be replaced by commercial farming for development to go ahead. Consequently, projects are almost all oriented to attempts to turn very poor rural smallholders into successful entrepreneurs of small farming businesses. Growth in the agricultural commercial economy is expected to provide the poor with income and employment.

“Group entrepreneurial projects” are intended to set up money-making cooperatives for local people to join together to make an income from their joint production. The intention is to initiate a market-based cooperative that can provide jobs and wellbeing and relieve dependency on the welfare system – in this way developing capitalist enterprise, providing poverty relief, maintaining community ownership, and bottom up participatory development all at the same time.

These projects are rarely successful in the long term and more often fail with great acrimony and bitterness all round. There are a number of fundamental problems. Projects typically recruit about forty villagers but are not funded with resources sufficient to enable viable incomes for all the beneficiaries. People are not used to working in large groups and sharing money. Leaders of the project are distrusted. Corruption either actually takes place or is at any rate suspected. The rest of the community feels left out and vandalism and theft are a common response. The beneficiaries are the “poorest of the poor” and lack the financial skills to run a business.

The other typical project design is intended to pick winners and supply wealthier and more educated villagers with what they need to establish a commercial operation – “leading farmer projects”. These “lead and model” farmers are meant to champion the commercialisation of agriculture. They are almost always the more middle-class residents of rural areas. They are given agricultural inputs to create demonstration farms that the poor are expected to copy.

Usually the technology is quite expensive from the village perspective. The aim is transition from subsistence into the cash economy. To enable a marketable product the leading farmer is provided with equipment and inputs that are expensive – but absolutely necessary to begin a commercial operation competing with large industrial farms. The project cannot really be copied by the poor. They cannot afford the technology. Nor could the project roll out this technology to all the poor who need support to achieve food security. It would be too expensive. As well, the leading farmer has a degree of education and a capacity to engage in business that is not shared by their fellow villagers.

There is a basic economic reason why these commercialisation projects cannot work. It relates to the small size of these rural holdings. Typically the poorer households with food security problems will have one to two hectares of cropping land and access to grazing areas and woodlands that are held in common.

Let us look at the mainstream argument for commercialisation. This argument is designed to show that a household will be better off growing a high value cash crop – and selling it to buy food – than growing a subsistence crop. As follows. If a household spends their season growing a basic food crop on their cropping land and then sells it at the farm gate, chances are that they would make less money than if they spent the season growing a high value commercial crop. Consequently, proponents of commercial farming conclude, it is a mug’s game growing crops for family consumption. Your work would be worth more money if you spent your time growing a commercial crop.

The answer to this argument also seems so obvious that it is surprising it is not more widely cited. It turns on the difference between the farm gate price for farm products and the market cost to consumers – the retail price. The farm gate price is what the farmer can get when they sell their produce at the farm gate – for example $10 for a 50kg bag of maize grains. The retail price is what they would have to pay if they bought the same weight of maize at the shop – for example $20 for a 50kg bag of maize flour. To make it sensible to farm for the market, the farm gate price of the commercial crop has to be high enough to cover the retail price of the food crop that the farmer has decided not to grow. In reality, on the land available to these villagers, commercial crops are rarely worth so much. The most sensible strategy for these smallholder families is to intensify their production of food crops for home consumption and to sell only the surplus that is produced after all their food needs have been met. I call this “Feeding the Farmers First”.

The only kind of project that can make a dent on the problems of rural food security in this region is a project which embodies some version of this “Feeding the Farmers First” strategy. My research has discovered a few isolated local NGOs in Uganda (KULIKA), South Africa (Is’Baya), and Zimbabwe (TSURO), that have developed projects of this kind and have been successful with that. For example, the Chikukwa Project in eastern Zimbabwe (CELUCT) has been going now for twenty-five years and has totally transformed an area at least fifteen kilometres wide, housing about 7,000 rural villagers. They have sorted out their food security problems and transformed their landscape to enable sustainable farming into the future.

The cultural problems of food security projects in the African villages would take a book to explain. Projects must be adapted to that social reality. Here I will just note the shared characteristics of these projects, that have proved they can work in that social context. This is what I call the “food security outreach” model.

All three of these NGOs make food security through household production their priority. At the same time beneficiaries are encouraged to believe that the methods being suggested will in fact produce a surplus for sale, over and above what the family needs for its own food security. The key agricultural strategy is mixed farming with a minimal use of purchased inputs. The aim is to produce all nutritional needs and for the different parts of the farming enterprise to support each other. The stress on low cost organic solutions has the effect of enabling food security to be attained without the dangers of running short of cash to provide inputs.

Crucially, these projects are directed firstly at improving the productivity of individual households on their own land. This does not rule out various kinds of community organisation to facilitate this household production. These organisations resist competitive pressure from projects which pay beneficiaries for work. In the food security outreach projects people are never paid to work on their own land or on the community land. Projects may start very small because they begin with people who are willing to volunteer their own work to improve their own production. They grow as the success of the approach being promoted becomes evident. Because food security outreach projects do not attempt to set up commercial farming operations the cost of donations of materials to individual households remains very minimal. It becomes possible for the project to be offered to all the households in a village. There is no exclusion, no community jealousy, and the project does not proceed by picking winners. On the other hand, successful beneficiaries may be rewarded by having their households chosen to represent best practice and get a small payment for farmer to farmer visits to their site. Transparency and a degree of control by the beneficiaries are achieved through various kinds of representation and democratic organisation. The logic is that interventions can only work if local people believe that they meet a felt need. Finally, none of these organisations works through a model in which an intervention is carried out for several years and then project staff pull out. Instead the project team has an ongoing relationship with a set of clients. Interventions build on previous interactions. At a certain point in time the food security outreach project will stop expanding and will restrict itself to a particular set of clients that can be handled effectively. Ideally it inspires people from other districts or countries to receive training and set up their own similar organisation.

My research and analysis of this topic challenges the models promoted both by academics in the field of development studies and by large donor organisations. What is evident is that with a very few exceptions the poorest of the poor are not going to become successful commercial farmers. Projects designed with that aim in mind have made little impact on food insecurity. Alternatives that embed the notion of “Feeding the Farmers First” will be more successful.


Terrence Leahy is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Newcastle. His forthcoming book is titled Feeding the Farmers First: A New Strategy for Food Security in the African Countryside. 

See Also: 

What does it mean to have an equitable and sustainable food system?