And Why isn’t it working?
What it is:
Subsistence farming or smallholder agriculture is when one family grows only enough to feed themselves. There is not usually much harvest to sell or trade, and what surplus there is tends to be stored to last the family until the next harvest. This is the most widely used method of agricultural farming in sub-Saharan Africa, and the majority of the rural poor depend on it for survival. It’s a method that has appeal to rural farmers because it allows food to be produced (with very little cost) in the rural areas, it lessens their need to find transportation to a city, and it creates opportunity to continue living in a village (where housing and land are much more affordable). It also means the family is self-sufficient in terms of food. Ideally, nothing needs to be purchased or borrowed from another source.
Why it doesn’t work:
For one, it is very susceptible to climate change. If there is a drought, if there is a flood, the harvest is severely limited that year. Meaning there might actually not be enough to feed the family. Subsistence farming works when everything goes right – but it rarely does. And even then, there is no profit generated. There’s no way to make money off of the farm, meaning that the family works to grow their food, but they lose time that could have been spent working for income. Subsistence farming is a deterrent to development in rural Africa, because it has no possible upward movement. Unless it switches to a semi-commercial model it will continue to prevent people from generating income.
What are we doing about it:
At Africa Development Promise, we believe that the principals behind subsistence farming are great. We work with agricultural cooperatives because rural farmers already have a solid foundation from which to start. Farming is what they know best and what they have done year after year, and we provide training that simply builds on that knowledge. The cooperative provides protection from losses because it increases the amount that can be farmed, and the profits are shared – meaning that if one farm suffers from a flood that year it can still be profitable.
The cooperative provides the opportunity for families to continue farming and make money while they do it. Not to mention, cooperatives are in line with the culture of rural Africa. Much land is communal and it is culturally accepted to share. These ideas are directly from the culture, and that’s why Africa Development Promise believes they can be so successful. We do not believe that large commercial farms are the best answer because it calls into question the issue of land ownership and could potentially increase the gap between rich and poor. Cooperatives are a way for everyone involved in smallholder agriculture to participate in their own economic empowerment while also helping their neighbor do the same.