The farmer definition of commercial agriculture: Farming for food and money


By Danyell Odhiambo, Communications Assistant, ICRAF

“Subsistence agriculture is farming for food while commercial agriculture is farming meant to provide a farmer with food and money.”

This was the response of the members of Nguliland women group in Kibwezi, Makueni County when I recently requested them to explain their understanding about the difference between the two types of farming. In essence, subsistence agriculture is when crops and animals are produced by a farmer to feed their family with little surplus left for selling. On the other hand, commercial agriculture is when crops and animals are produced with the intention of selling.

Dr. Jonathan Muriuki, an agroforestry expert at the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) expounds further this definition to include trees. “It is important to note that trees form an integral component of our farming systems. Interestingly enough, their commercial and domestic utilities are most often overlooked when defining commercial and subsitence farming,” Dr. Muriuki says.

There has been renewed calls urging rural farmers in the developing world to shift focus from subsistence agriculture to market-oriented farming. These appeals aim at taming the rising levels of poverty, food and water insecurity which continue to threaten the livelihoods of rural communities – constituting 63 percent of the total population in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA).

As a result, development agencies in partnership with governments endeavor to deliver sustainable strategies of adressing the plight of the rural communities in the continent.

One such intervention is the Regional Programme on food and water security in the Sahel and Horn of Africa now known as DryDev. The Programme brings together various partners and stakeholders from five countries: Ethiopia, Kenya, Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger and was launched in 2013.

The Programme’s vision is to see rural households transition from subsistence farming and emergency aid to sustainable rural development by increasing food and water security, better access to markets and strengthening of the local economy for different categories of farmers.

Prevailing situation

Subsistence agriculture is prevalent in SSA yet it has proven to be unprofitable and is characterized by several constraints including low uptake of modern farm inputs, high transport costs, weak farmer organizations, poor quality control and lack of information on markets and prices to sell surplus produce.

This situation is replicated in the agricultural value chains in SSA which grapples with poorly functioning markets, poor access to financial services by actors, fierce competition and weak policy framework among others.

Paul Sila, the chairman of Kalulu Self Help Group in Makutano, Machakos County is livid about the plight of farmers who, as he says, work hard all year round only for their hard work to be exploited by unscrupulous businessmen.

“Middlemen have taken advantage of the weak market systems to exploit farmers. Most of the time we are forced to sell our perishable farm produce at throwaway prices as we fear to suffer losses. A good example is the apple mango which brokers buy from farmers at Kshs. 5 ($ 0.051) only to sell at Kshs. 25 ($ 0.25) in Nairobi,” he lamented.

A policy document on commercialization for inclusive growth in SSA developed by the Global Development Network in 2012 outlines four main factors that have been a major hindrance to successful agricultural commercialization in SSA. These include socio-economic characteristics eg. poor education, low illiteracy levels, cultures and traditions that may hinder smallholder farmers from becoming commercial producers; insufficient agricultural and development infrastructure; lack of access to sufficient agricultural support services and high transaction costs and institutional factors.

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has also estimated that 75 percent of the poor in developing countries live in rural areas and rely on smallholder agriculture. Therefore, strengthening the agricultural sector means not only improving access to nutritious food, but also creating a sustainable environment for enhancing food security and economic development in such areas.


Overcoming the constraints

The DryDev Programme has developed a two-pronged approach towards promoting commercialization of rural economies which is outlined as a key outcome area. First, the Programme aims to ensure the increased participation of different categories of farmers in strengthened value chains of selected inputs and commodities. In the five years of operation, the programme seeks to increase the number of farmers participating in various stages of the value chains by at least 25 percent in the project areas seleced in each of the five countries.

Second intervention focuses on increasing the accessibility to credit and financial mechanisms by different categories of farmers. By the end of the Programme, the percentage of women and other disadvantaged groups having access to credit will have increased by one quarter in the period between year 2014 to 2018.

As a part of the inception year activities in 2014, the Programme carried out charecterization studies in order to initiate interventions informed by the unique contexts in the various sites. Subsequently, the survey findings will be utilized to analyse factors that determine the effectiveness of value chains as well as the legal, and regulatory and policy environment.

Through farmer organizations the DryDev is focused on strengthening farmers capacity to meet the growing challenges in the mission to promote agricultural commercialization.

ICRAF is the lead implementer of DryDev in collaboration with World Vision Kenya, Adventist Development Relief Agency (ADRA), Caritas and the Netherlands Development Organization (SNV).

The Programme has conducted several capacity building exercises in Machakos, Makueni and Kitui Counties in Kenya to equip farmer groups with business skills.

“We have been trained on the various aspects of agricultural commercialization including; good farming practices, cultivating market-driven products, post-harvest handling, value addition strategies, tree nursery as a business, record keeping and market sourcing among others,’’ Janet Chuma, Secretary of Nguliland Women group elaborated.

Producing more food and making profits from agriculture is what the farmers believe can help them achieve sustainable economic development and and environmental conservation.

DryDev is a funded by General Directorate for International Cooperation (DGIS) in the Netherlands-Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

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