Importance of smallholder farmers explored in inaugural UKZN lecture

Professor Lloyd Baiyegunhi. Photograph: supplied

Professor Lloyd Baiyegunhi. Photograph: supplied

Published Dec 22, 2023


By Christine Cuénod

The inaugural lecture of Professor Lloyd Baiyegunhi in the Discipline of Agricultural Economics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) provided insight into the status and importance of smallholder farmers from an expert in business management and economics.

Baiyegunhi’s lecture discussed who smallholder farmers are and the state in which they find themselves - including the challenges they experience, the importance of their contributions, the paradigms around developing these farms, research successes, as well as sustainable strategies to increase smallholder productivity.

Smallholder farmers account for about 80% of Africa’s agricultural sector, which Baiyegunhi highlighted as having a significant economic and livelihood impact that has the potential to end hunger and poverty, increase trade and investment, create jobs and enhance livelihoods.

Farms that are smaller than two-hectares are categorised as smallholder. The term is used interchangeably with family, small-scale, subsistence or low-income farming.

Baiyegunhi presented pertinent facts about smallholder farmers, who amount to 500 million worldwide and in some regions produce as much as 80% of the food consumed. Often disadvantaged, smallholder farmers are concentrated in rural areas.

Smallholder farming in Africa is currently characterised by low productivity due to limited access to resources and modern farming techniques; leading to low income that creates poverty cycles and hinders rural agricultural development. Consequently, low investment in infrastructure, transport and telecommunications contributes to reduced agricultural productivity.

Baiyegunhi said challenges to increasing smallholder productivity include climate change, lack of access to capital assets, poor infrastructure, a lack of competitiveness and a low rate of adoption of technology.

He explored whether the small farm development paradigm is still relevant given considerable changes like globalisation and liberalisation, but said that despite the challenges and the pessimism of some experts, small farms are far from disappearing. In some countries, they are becoming more dominant in land distribution and playing a significant role in global agricultural production and sustaining rural livelihoods.

In Africa, smallholder farmers, mostly women, are often more efficient than large-scale farmers, are the most populous farm-size group, and employ rural and unskilled workers.

Baiyegunhi’s research at UKZN has been motivated by the high-proportion of resource-poor households living in rural parts of Africa without economic power. He aims to integrate and apply economic and business principles to solve agricultural and natural resource problems.

“The knowledge that our research results will likely improve their agricultural productivity, food security and income creates a lot of excitement and fulfilment for me,” he said.

He shared key successes from his research, including the impacts of integrated Striga management in Nigeria, welfare impacts of smallholder farmers’ participation in maize and pigeon pea markets in Tanzania, as well as the impact of outsourced agricultural extension programmes on smallholder farmers’ net farm income in Msinga. He also shared about the gender differentials in technical efficiency of Ghanaian cocoa farms and the impact of climate change adaptation strategies on rice productivity in south-west Nigeria.

Baiyegunhi said the future of smallholder farmers would require critical government support and outlined several key sustainable strategies to increase smallholder productivity. His title alluded to the Biblical “you reap what you sow” principle of future consequences for African agriculture being shaped by present action.

“Africa must use her intellectual prowess and moral principles to develop a more connected economy that is centred on transforming small farms to meet the population’s needs for food, health and energy.”

He concluded by saying that smallholder farms play a role in achieving Africa’s development goals and by improving their productivity, land rights, market access and more, will increase food production, rural employment, reduce poverty, improve gender equality and drive growth of rural economies.

Baiyegunhi holds a C2 rating from the National Research Foundation and is a registered- professional natural scientist with the South African Council for Natural Scientific Professions. He is also a member of several professional societies.

* Watch Professor Baiyegunhi’s lecture here.