Rethinking poverty eradication and food security through agriculture in Africa


December 10, 2019

Agriculture in Africa is expected to meet the dual objectives of providing food and helping people to escape poverty. In practice, this is rarely possible on the small farms that cover the vast majority of the continent’s agricultural landscapes. It is time for policymakers, agricultural researchers, and practitioners to recognize the need to separate food security and poverty eradication, argue a team from World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, Bangor University, and Oxford Martin School, in a new article published in the journal Outlook on Agriculture.

The expectation of the development sector is that if the gap between actual and potential yields can be closed, smallholders will grow enough crops to feed their families, with a surplus to sell, thereby meeting food security needs and bringing in an income to move them out of poverty. ‘However, we question investments into small-scale agriculture that either explicitly or implicitly create expectations that improvements to current farming practices alone will lift people out of poverty’, said Anja Gassner of ICRAF, lead author of the paper.

In practice, say the authors, although technologies that can significantly increase smallholding farmers’ yields already exist, the small size of land available to each farmer limits how much can be grown and sold. The per capita income from such agriculture is insufficient to move these farmers above the World Bank-defined poverty line of USD 1.90 per person per day.

Analysis of the various farmers types reveals large differences between individual farming households in terms of incentives to invest in farming and ability to benefit from field technologies aimed at increasing productivity. These differences call for differentiated, more tailored policies for agricultural development in Africa, argue the authors.

‘We suggest that policymakers should be much more aware of the heterogeneity of farms and target interventions accordingly,’ said Gassner. ‘It’s important to understand where, and for whom, agriculture will have the main purpose of ensuring food and nutritional security and where, and for whom, there is the potential for significant increases in incomes and a contribution to wider economic growth. Let us recognize the distinctiveness of these targets and underlying target groups and work toward solutions that address their needs.’

The authors agree with the emerging thinking in decision science and behavioral economics that development strategies can only be effective if they take into consideration the incentives or constraints of the people whose behavior they are trying to change. As a consequence, policies and programs are needed that put a stronger emphasis on providing the enabling conditions for farmers to change rather than focusing solely on technical aspects.

‘Agricultural development programs need to appreciate farming households as partners in a public–private partnership,’ said Kai Mausch, one of the authors, ‘not simply as beneficiaries of advanced agricultural technologies. Intensification technologies aimed at closing the yield gap should rather be targeted at medium- and larger-sized farming operations as well as those smallholders who have the incentive and potential to invest and benefit.’

‘If we follow Amartya Sen’s argument that freedom of choice is both the primary end and the principal means of development,’ said Gassner, ‘the question then should be how to allocate the scarce resources of rural interventions to ensure that farmers have access to all the agricultural input they need to optimize their production system according to their own needs and wishes in a sustainable way while providing opportunities to rural households — especially young people — to diversify their livelihoods’ portfolio, especially by taking up non-farm opportunities.’

‘What the team is essentially arguing,’ said Ravi Prabhu, deputy director-general for research with ICRAF, ‘is a paradigm and system change supported by policies that recognize heterogeneity and diversity as values to be built upon.’


Gassner A, Harris D, Mausch K, Terheggen A, Lopes C, Finlayson RF, Dobie P. 2019. Poverty eradication and food security through agriculture in Africa: Rethinking objectives and entry points. Outlook on Agriculture 21 Nov 2019.

This post is based on the press-release from the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF). Read the full version here

This work was supported by the CGIAR Research Programs on: Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA), specifically the Sentinel Landscape Initiative; Grain Legumes and Dryland Cereals (GLDC); and Policies, Institutions, and Markets (PIM). Additional support was provided by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and the Centre for International Migration and Development (CIM).

Photo: Stefanie Neno / CIAT