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Rebooting Subsistence Agriculture in Rural Areas

By Esther Ngumbi

Achieving and fulfilling the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) overwhelmingly depends on making progress in rural areas, where most of the hungry and poor live. This was the main conclusion of the new report “The State of Food and Agriculture: Leveraging Food Systems for Inclusive Rural Transformation,” released by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Further, unless inclusive economic growth—growth that leaves no one behind, reaching the most vulnerable people of our society—is realized in rural areas, we will not meet the first two SDGs of ending poverty and achieving zero hunger by 2030.  

The report offered other important findings regarding hunger and agriculture. Efforts to eradicate hunger in rural areas are undermined by low agricultural productivity, rapid rates of population growth, and explosive urbanization. In the next 15 years, for example, the number of people living in African cities is expected to double. Due to the limited number of available jobs, most of the people migrating to urban areas end up unemployed, joining the already large group of urban hungry and poor. Despite the challenges of the current state of food and agriculture, however, urbanization can be a major force to fuel inclusive rural transformation and help move millions out of poverty and extreme hunger. It presents a golden opportunity for agriculture. With urbanization comes rising incomes overall, and as a result, people’s diets change and the demand for high value products increases. Consumers purchase more meat, vegetables, and fresh fruits. The expanding population provides opportunities for rural farmers to increase productivity to meet the growing food demands, by growing new crops or creatively marketing old crops as tastes change. Urban food demands can indeed spark rural renewal.  

But what other measures are necessary to ensure that smallholder rural farmers take advantage of urbanizing African cities and feed the growing urban population?

First and foremost, rural farmers must have access to the key ingredients that allow them to successfully grow crops and improve their productivity to meet the growing urban market demands. Five hundred million smallholder farmers produce 80 percent of the food in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. They need access to modern seed varieties, fertilizers, water, and other essential technology. Farmers must also have knowledge of climate-smart farming practices to consistently grow crops in changing conditions. They also need credit, capital, and markets in order to sell their crops. Their land tenure rights must also be strengthened; available studies show that secure land and property rights incentivize farmers to increase their efficiency in terms of agricultural productivity. Progress in any of these areas requires that governments enact policies to facilitate such changes.

After working with over 100 farmers in Kwale County at the Kenyan coast, through Oyeska Greens, a start-up I co-founded, I can attest to the transformation that occurs when farmers living in rural communities have access to these tools. After three years, farmers who participated in the initiative, receiving resources as well as training on methods for growing crops, had improved their production by 50 percent. I saw smallholder farmers supply markets for the first time, after years of low-productivity subsistence farming. I saw farmers move away from poverty. I saw farmers’ lives change.

Second, African governments should continue investing in infrastructure, such as electricity, refrigerated transportation, and roads that connect rural areas to urban markets. When rural communities are connected with urban cities, farmers are able to access markets, sell their products, and generate income. In Ghana and Kenya, access to railways has had a positive impact on economic development in both the short and long run, since farmers are now able to sell their products in distant markets. Improved transport networks lower transportation costs, so farmers with new market opportunities choose to invest in agricultural technologies and increase their production of high-input crops. In Ethiopia, improved transport networks ultimately resulted in increased productivity and income. In Bangladesh, rural road investments reduced poverty through higher agricultural production, lower input costs, and higher output process.

In my own community, I have seen the firsthand impact of updated infrastructure. For the last three years, Kwale County government has invested in improving rural roads and connecting rural areas to small urban cities like Ukunda as well as bigger cities like Mombasa. As a result, farmers in our community are able to access inputs at lower costs. Many are also farming profitable high-value crops like tomatoes, which are in huge demand. 

Third, rather than focusing on meeting bigger cities’ food needs, smallholder rural farmers should focus on meeting the food demands of smaller cities and towns. In the developing world, half of the urban population live in cities and towns of 500,000 inhabitants or fewer. These smaller cities can serve as hubs for a thriving agricultural and service sector, which can drive broad-based economic growth in rural areas.

According to this U.N. report, small cities can serve as catalysts in mediating the rural-urban continuum and providing smallholder farmers with market opportunities. Smallholder farmers and people living in rural areas should take advantage of them. In addition, policymakers should recognize the potential of small cities and start to include them in development plans. 

Making agricultural economic growth more inclusive, improving infrastructure, and transforming rural areas by increasing access to cities can eradicate hunger and shift millions of people who live in remote areas away from poverty. In doing so, we can fulfill the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals agenda.

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Esther Ngumbi is a postdoctoral researcher at Auburn University in Alabama. She serves as a 2017 Clinton Global Initiative University Mentor for Agriculture and is a 2015 Food Security New Voices Fellow at the Aspen Institute. Reach her @EstherNgumbi.

[Photo courtesy of Neil Palmer]

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