As facts go, the facts of the small African farm are grim, and seldom grasped. You need to start here, though, because 70% of the world’s poorest people live on very small farms.
Their poverty is nothing but straightforward: if you’re farming the size of farm the poorest farm, with the kind of technology the poorest have access to and getting the yields that pass for normal in the poorest countries, you just don’t produce enough calories to feed even two adults –
[A note on sources is at the end.]
A household working one acre at South Sudanese yields just can’t feed itself. Notice, we’re talking calories here. So this is before we even start thinking about protein, or micronutrients, to say nothing of the thousand other things people need to survive (cookware, salt, oil, housing, clothes, etc. etc. etc.) It doesn’t get more elemental than this.
The second column in that chart shows what happens if you take that same very poor household and endow it with three simple things: high-yield hybrid seed, a ridiculously small amount of fertilizer, and the advice on how to use them properly.
It turns out to be shockingly easy to boost small farm yields 3 and 4-fold, just by doing that. Suddenly, there are enough calories to go around, perhaps a bit to sell. Some actual cash income. A minimum of hope.
“But, there is a lot more to it than that!” Yes, I know. it’s simplistic. There’s politics and urbanization and gender dynamics and soil erosion and corruption and malaria and climate change and a basically endless list of “buts”. Of course.
And of course developing nor distributing better inputs is neither simple nor straightforward. There are bottlenecks of every imaginable sort – technological, cultural, infrastructural, financial, political – enough to keep the best development minds engaged for a long time to come.
It’s easy to get lost in the “buts”, isn’t it? Most of the development world has taken up permanent residence in these “buts” – with notable exceptions, of course. It’s not that the “buts” don’t matter, it’s that they tend to obscure the simple – brutally simple – facts in this tiny spreadsheet.
For 70% of the world’s poorest people, 70% of the development game is just about getting from that first column to that second column. How about we start there?
[Note: The figures are just for illustration, obviously, though not entirely made up. It’s challenging to generalize because actual yields vary enormously not just from country to country but from region to region, field to field, and year to year. And smallholder farm sizes vary, too. I use 0.88 MT/Ha because that’s the average yield calculated for South Sudan – where more or less nobody uses hybrid seed – by the WFP/FAO in 2013. Sadly, yields under 1 ton/hectare are far from rare in Sub-Saharan Africa, particularly where farmers use saved seed. By the same token, in neighboring Uganda maize yields have been documented to triple to over 3 MT/Ha as a result of introducing improved inputs, with mean yields rising above that level in 75% of fields a result of input-oriented interventions.]