Medium-scale farms are on the rise in Africa. Here’s why this is good news

by population growth and growing land scarcity, most African farm households are
the gradual sub-division of their land. Over time farms are getting
smaller and smaller. Today, over 80% of farms in relatively densely populated
countries – like Kenya, Ethiopia, Malawi and Rwanda are smaller than one
hectare. Because they’re so small, few can generate enough income to keep
farmers above the poverty line and most of them increasingly rely on off-farm

But, from about ten years ago, we have started to see evidence
of a major rise in the number of medium-scale, African-owned farms.

Along with many colleagues, we set
to understand who these people are. We randomly selected farms
operating between five to 50 hectares and interviewed the farmers. We found
that the rapid rise of these medium-scale farms was being driven by a diverse
group of people including urban-based professionals, influential rural people,
and successful smallholder farmers who acquired more land and grew their

Within the past decade, the amount of agricultural produce that these farms
contribute to countries’ national output has risen rapidly. In some countries,
like Tanzania and Zambia, medium-sized farms now account for roughly
40% of the country’s marketed agricultural produce.

This isn’t uniformly true across Africa. In land-constrained, densely
populated areas like Kenya and Rwanda, small-scale farms still account for most
of the agricultural output. Medium-scale farms are on the rise mainly where
there is substantial, undeveloped land.

While much remains unknown and the story is still unfolding, we believe that
medium-scale farms are an important driver of rural transformation in much of
Africa – with mostly positive results.

Influential Africans

For about ten years there’s been a prolonged surge in global food prices.
This ushered in major, and much
, investment in African farmland by foreign investors. What
happened largely under the radar were huge farmland investments by African
professionals, entrepreneurs and civil servants.

The amount of land acquired by these medium-scale African farmers since 2000
far exceeds
the amount acquired by foreign investors.

They are relatively wealthy and influential, often professionals,
entrepreneurs or retired civil servants. Many accumulated wealth from non-farm
jobs, invested in land and became either part-time or full-time farmers.

Many are based in rural areas and have political or social influence with
local traditional authorities. Others are urban “telephone farmers” who retain
jobs in the cities, hire managers to attend to their farms and occasionally
visit on weekends.

In some countries, we also find that many current medium-scale farmers
started out as small-scale farmers who successfully expanded their operations.

Medium-scale farmers bring new sources of capital and know-how to African
agriculture. They have in some countries become a politically powerful group that are
well represented in farm lobbies and national agricultural strategies. They
have solidified African governments’ commitments to support agriculture.

They get their land from traditional chiefs or by purchasing land from
others, including small-scale farm households. Displaced smallholders,
especially young people, tend to move off farm in search of other sources of

We identified three reasons for the recent growth of African medium-scale

First, rapid population growth, urbanisation and rising incomes have
contributed to massive
in demand for food in African countries. Africans with the resources
to respond to this demand are doing so.

Second, many Africans with money and resources found farming to be a
lucrative investment opportunity – especially during this sustained period of
high global food prices since
the mid-2000s.

Third, policy reforms in the 1990s removed major barriers to private trade
and improved the conditions for private investment in African agri-food
systems. One example of this was the removal of restrictions on private
movement of food commodities across district borders.

The effects of these reforms exploded after world food prices suddenly
skyrocketed. They enabled
thousands of small, medium and large-scale private firms to rapidly respond to
profitable incentives.

Smallholder farmers

With the rise of the medium-scale farms, we expected to find that
smallholders were being marginalised. But we’ve changed our views on this in
light of various pieces of evidence.

First, medium-scale farms are providing access to markets and services for
nearby smallholder farms. For example, many medium-scale farms have attracted
tractor rental providers, who now provide mechanisation services to
smallholders. This allows them to farm their land with much less labour input,
freeing up opportunities to work in off-farm pursuits.

Second, large trading firms are
up buying depots in areas where there’s a high concentration of
medium-scale farms. This improves market access for smallholders too.

We also found that the medium-scale farms are good for the local economy.
They inject cash into the local economy through their expenditures, stimulating
off-farm employment opportunities for many rural people who were formerly
dependent on subsistence farming.

Medium-scale farms have also contributed to sub-Saharan Africa’s 4.6%
annual rate
of agricultural production growth between 2000 and 2015. This
is the highest of any region in the world over this period.

While there are a lot of positives, these changes are uprooting the
traditional social fabric and creating new power structures. The rise of land
markets is creating a new class of landless workers who are dependent on the
local non-farm economy for their livelihoods.

Policy makers will need guidance on how to minimise these hardships –
protecting those who are most vulnerable as the processes of economic
transformation gradually raise living standards for the majority of the

This article is republished from The
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Publish date : 2019-01-02 17:12:00

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