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Foods available to African farm households increase with market access and off-farm work

Foods of Khulungira: Fish stew, boiled maize, mixed beans, dried mushrooms, pumpkin leaves and egg stew

Common foods of Khulungira village, in central Malawi: Nsomba zophika (fish stew), chimanga chophika (boiled maize), nyemba zophika (mixed beans with salt and oil), bowa wofutsa (dried mushrooms with ground groundnuts), nkhwani wophatikiza ndi maungu anthete ndi kachewere wophika (pumpkin leaves, pumpkin blossoms and potatoes) and mazira ophika ndi phwetekere, anyezi, mafuta ndi mchere (boiled eggs with tomato, onions, oil and salt) (photo credit: CGIAR/Mann).

A unique dataset covering land use and production data by more than 13,000 smallholder farm households in 93 sites in 17 countries across sub-Saharan Africa is described in a paper recently published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). Mark van Wijk, a scientist at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), led the study with other colleagues from ILRI and partner institutions. Excerpts from the paper, and its key messages, follow.

‘We calculated a simple indicator of food availability using data from 93 sites in 17 countries across contrasted agroecologies in sub-Saharan Africa (>13,000 farm households) and analyzed the drivers of variations in food availability. Crop production was the major source of energy, contributing 60% of food availability. The off-farm income contribution to food availability ranged from 12% for households without enough food available (18% of the total sample) to 27% for the 58% of households with sufficient food available.

Using only three explanatory variables (household size, number of livestock, and land area), we were able to predict correctly the agricultural determined status of food availability for 72% of the households, but the relationships were strongly influenced by the degree of market access.

Our analyses suggest that targeting poverty through improving market access and off-farm opportunities is a better strategy to increase food security than focusing [only] on agricultural production and closing yield gaps.

Recognizing and understanding diversity among smallholder farm households in sub-Saharan Africa is key for the design of policies that aim to improve food security.

These results show there is a strong need for multisectoral policy harmonization and incentives and improved interconnectedness of people to urban centers and diversification of employment sources, rather than a singular focus on agricultural development of smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa.

‘Achieving sustainable food security (i.e., the basic right of people to produce and/or purchase the food they need, without harming the social and biophysical environment) is a major challenge in a world of rapid human population growth and large-scale changes in economic development. In sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), production on smallholder farms is critical to the food security of the rural poor and contributes the majority of food production at the national level. National policies and local interventions have profound impacts on the opportunities and constraints that affect smallholders.

However, policy frameworks that aim to improve food security and rural livelihoods in the developing world face many uncertainties and often fail.

‘The formulation of effective policies needs adequate information on how different options affect the complex issues surrounding food security and sustainable development. A complication in generating such information is the large diversity within and among smallholder farming systems. Agroecological conditions, markets, and local cultures determine land use patterns and agricultural management across regions, whereas within a given region, farm households differ in many ways, including resource endowment, production orientation and objectives, ethnicity, education, past experience, management skills, and in the farm households’ attitude toward risk.

Policies by their nature have to be widely applicable, but recognizing this diversity in farm households is key to designing more effective policies to help poor farmers.

Understanding the main drivers of household diversity and their relationship with livelihood strategies can help to better codesign and target agricultural innovations.

‘In this study, we brought together cross-sectional farm household characterization data from 93 sites in 17 countries of SSA. Such a large database provides an immensely rich resource to derive descriptions linking indicators of food security and land use to the socioeconomic and biophysical environment of the smallholder farmers. We use these data to develop a simple farm household performance indicator that is robust and can be calculated based on the household information collected in different surveys. . . . ‘

Some excerpted statements from the paper

  • Consumption of self-produced food crops did not cover the food need for almost 80% of the households. Crop and livestock product sales were a substantial part of the [food availability] indicator.
  • Across the three [food availability] classes, the contribution of livestock to [potential food equivalent] was relatively conservative with a total contribution of about 20%. Within this overall contribution of livestock, though, there was a clear shift away from poultry to cattle as the level of [food availability] increased.
  • [Food availability] without off-farm income increased gradually with increasing livestock ownership.
  • Based on the resources of the household and its size (crop land, livestock, and family size), the model predicted correctly the [food availability] status (can a household, yes or no, produce and/or purchase enough food to feed the family?) of 72% of the households.
  • Households in market-constrained environments needed more land to achieve sufficient [food availability] values, with livestock being important or necessary.

Key messages from the discussion section
Bridging yield gaps is important, but improving market access is essential
‘Consumption of food crops produced on the farm forms the base level of energy supply in all smallholder farms, but most farm households start selling food crops before the households’ consumption reaches food self-sufficiency. Farm households sell produce even when they do not produce enough food to be self-sufficient: 83% of the farm household sell part of their crop produce, and only 4% of the farmers do not sell anything of their crop or livestock produce. Thus, market access is crucial to ensure or improve the livelihoods of these families.’

Livestock matter for both the poor and the rich
‘Livestock provided roughly 20% of the energy of the households. A clear shift in livestock species was observed: the poorest farmers rely on poultry, and those with better [food availability] own cattle. This shift follows what has been described as the “livestock ladder” across different farms. The livestock ladder depicts a system that poor smallholders can use to ascend from keeping small-stock to acquiring larger animals, so a dynamic change over time within the same smallholder farm. Our results show that the upper rungs of the ladder are associated with better [food availability]. However, the ladder does not show whether limiting resources, for example, fodder availability, will limit the ability of farmers to climb the ladder .’

Off-farm income is the stabilizer in the equation
‘Off-farm income was strongly related to the degree of [food availability] . . . .’

Simple models and indicators are needed for targeting and upscaling policy and development
‘When farmers have good market access, the size of the farm needed to produce and/or purchase enough food to feed the family secure can be small. . . .’

More land does not automatically mean more food is available throughout sub-Saharan Africa
‘[A]cross these different ranges, land productivity systematically declined with an increase in cropland holding. . . . [M]edium size farms are most efficient per unit area. . . . [W]here there is no land constraint and where there is no market access (e.g., in semiarid regions with low population densities), . . . the only way to become food secure . . . is through livestock holdings . . . .’

Targeting more than agricultural development is a necessity
‘[R]ural development in [sub-Saharan Africa] has to be more than closing yield gaps and agricultural development per se. Connecting people to urban centers and generating other employment sources will directly affect food security in a manner that boosting production cannot. As discussed earlier, farmers start selling produce at levels below fulfilling food self-sufficiency, and increasing productivity of food crops will only lead to substantial improvement in food security if cash crops and intensified livestock production can take place, both needing good market access. . . .’

Read the whole scientific paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Drivers of household food availability in sub-Saharan Africa based on big data from small farms, by Romain Frelata (ILRI and CIMMYT), Santiago Lopez-Ridaura (CIMMYT), Ken Giller (Wageningen University), Mario Herrero (CSIRO), Sabine Douxchamps (ILRI), Agnes Andersson Djurfeldt (Lund University), Olaf Erenstein (CIMMYT), Ben Henderson (CSIRO), Menale Kassie (CIMMYT), Birthe Paul (CIAT), Cyrille Rigolot (CSIRO and French National Institute for Agricultural Research), Randall Ritzema (ILRI), Daniel Rodriguez (University of Queensland), Piet van Asten (IITA) and Mark van Wijk (ILRI), online early edition, 28 Dec 2015.

This work is a joint output of the CGIAR research programs on Livestock and Fish (LivestockFish), Integrated Systems for the Humid Tropics (Humidtropics) and Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) and the following bilateral donor projects:
AFRINT: Swedish International Development Cooperation (Sida) and the Swedish Research Council (VR)
CIALCA: Belgian Directorate General for Development Cooperation (DGDC)
AFSI CORAF-AUSAID: Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT)
N2Africa: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) grant to Wageningen University
SIMLESA: Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR)
LiveGAPS: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) grant to the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO)

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