Mark Ashurst: The small farmers leading a genuine Green Revolution

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

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