Mark Ashurst: The small farmers leading a genuine Green Revolution

Already, the ideas of self-sufficiency and food security are being conflated

Share
Related Topics

A short walk from the Rwandan parliament, Vision 2020 is an open-air café popular with bureaucrats and taxi drivers. The Kigali eatery takes its name from the national development plan, drafted by the government of President Paul Kagame, with intent to transform the tiny, landlocked African nation into a modern middle-income state. Its name is more than a merely patriotic gesture. In the coming years, few things will matter more in Rwanda than food – or, in the jargon of the development industry, food security.

Just what Vision 2020 will mean for the livelihoods of Rwanda's traditional smallholders and peasant farmers is disputed. The outcome will be an acid test of changing priorities in international development. Two-thirds of Africa's population depend on agriculture which, in many countries, is now the number one issue in domestic politics. (Worldwide, at least a billion people – one person in six – are hungry). By 2050, the global population is set to rise by a third while Africa's population will double. Rising prosperity in the fast-growing and populous economies of China and India has inflated prices of staple crops such as rice and maize, increasing the burden for the poor. The appetite for resource-intensive red meat among a new middle class in many developing countries is adding to pressure on finite reserves of land and water, and driving demand for cattle feed.

Vision 2020 sets out a plan to boost the productivity of Rwandan farmers by agglomerating small plots of land for large-scale, intensive cultivation of staple crops. Compliant smallholders who follow the prescriptions for "zoning" and "mono-cropping" are promised a stake in larger cooperatives and commercial farms, and targeted subsidies for inputs such as seeds and fertiliser. The policy has been endorsed by foreign donors, for whom Rwanda is a striking example of post-conflict recovery.

Bold ideas for agricultural reform are a recurring mantra of recent calls for a "green revolution" in Africa. A concerted effort to boost agricultural product self-sufficiency is long overdue, but as a rallying cry for reform it is a curious place to start. Self-sufficiency implies growing enough to feed yourself – an ambitious project which failed disastrously under President Julius Nyerere's policy of Ujamaa – familyhood – in post-independence Tanzania. It is a very different ambition from food security, which means having enough to eat. In the new rhetoric of green revolution, these two distinct ideas are already conflated. The risk is that governments pursuing food security will be tempted into a new variant of "directed agriculture". Self-sufficiency is a meagre promise for rural populations who depend on a single staple such as maize. Half of Africa's smallholder farmers are already net purchasers of staple crops to supplement their own harvest. For many, the best hope of an improvement in rural incomes would be to diversify away from traditional crops.

African ministers, buoyed by new investment and solidarity from Beijing, are fond of citing China as an alternative to the ideas touted by Western development agencies. In this instance, they may well be right. China's green revolution, launched in 1978, followed a different trajectory. To achieve self-sufficiency in grain, Beijing shifted production from "people's communes" to household farms, and opened state-controlled agricultural markets to private trade.

In China, self-sufficiency in food brought the political stability which provided a foundation for industrialisation. Without reliable power, infrastructure and regional markets, a Chinese-style green revolution will not happen in Africa. Rather than pushing smallholders away from the land, it would make better use of their skills and limited resources. A key working principle is that poverty is caused by lack of money – not a lack of food.

A compelling alternative is Kenya, where rural livelihoods have been transformed by exports of fruit, flowers and vegetables. Foreign earnings from horticulture passed $1bn last year – a bigger business than tourism, telecommunications or banking. Two-thirds of Kenyan vegetables are grown by smallholders, whose average incomes have increased six-fold since they switched from low- value staples such as maize. The extra income pays for school fees, medical care – and, of course, food.

Crucially for a region probably affected by climate change already, Kenyan vegetables are a sustainable trade. Grown by hand, they generate lower carbon emissions than Europe's industrial farms. Most are flown to Europe in passenger aircrafts, a fact ignored by rival farmers who have campaigned, on dubious grounds, about the "carbon footprint" of African vegetables. Like so many other revolutions, Kenyan horticulture owes much to deft organisation and dedication of small farmers. Theirs is a green revolution we can believe in.



Mark Ashurst is director of the Africa Research Institute www.africaresarchinstitute.org

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Cleaner

£15000 - £16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you've got first class custo...

Recruitment Genius: Mobile Applications Developer / Architect - iOS and Android

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity to join a medium s...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Account Executive - £40K OTE

£11830 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Working in a friendly, sales ta...

Recruitment Genius: Web Designer

£15000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's leading web des...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The Pentagon has suggested that, since the campaign started, some 10,000 Isis fighters in Iraq and Syria have been killed  

War with Isis: If the US wants to destroy the group, it will need to train Syrians and Iraqis

David Usborne
David Cameron gives a speech at a Tory party dinner  

In a time of austerity, should Tories be bidding £210,000 for a signed photo of the new Cabinet?

Simon Kelner
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test
Tour de France 2015: Twins Simon and Adam Yates have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Twins have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Yates brothers will target the steepest sections in bid to win a stage in France
John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy