In Africa, Small (Farming) Can Be Beautiful

By Nieuwoudt, Stephanie | National Catholic Reporter, May 16, 2008 | Go to article overview

In Africa, Small (Farming) Can Be Beautiful


Nieuwoudt, Stephanie, National Catholic Reporter


Is small the new big when it comes to agriculture in southern Africa? Rising food prices worldwide make a compelling case for greater investment in small-scale farming.

Pedro Sanchez, director of tropical agriculture at Columbia University's Earth Institute in New York, believes that investing in small-scale farmers could turn the economy around in southern Africa and improve food security. He notes that a threat of severe food shortages in Malawi four years ago was averted when the United Nations, at the request of Malawi's government, helped small farmers get fer tilizer, seeds and other necessities.

"It costs $70 to grow a ton of maize as opposed to importing it at $700," Sanchez said. "Malawi is a country that has gone from [being] a food-aid recipient to an exporter of maize," Sanchez said.

The emphasis on small-scale agriculture does not equate to dismissing commercial farmers on large properties, however.

"In Zimbabwe, for instance, agriculture can be turned around in no time if the commercial farmers who have left the country are invited to come back," Sanchez said.

About eight years ago, Zimbabwe's government embarked on a controversial land redistribution program to correct racial imbalances in ownership dating to the colonial era, and hundreds of white commercial farmers left their properties. Critics say the changes have benefited high-ranking officials at the expense of poor black Zimbabweans.

What is needed now, Sanchez said, is research aimed at appropriate use of technology under these conditions and more training for farmers. …

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