Home / Medium-sized, mixed family farms to feed the future: A vision for farming in Africa

Medium-sized, mixed family farms to feed the future: A vision for farming in Africa

Expert Opnion: A Vision for Farming in Africa
March 26, 2015 By: Melle Leenstra Image: EKN Nairobi (by: Selma van Gemert)

Agricultural development programmes have too long focused on semi-subsistence smallholders in an effort to achieve food security. This has not contributed to the African green revolution that is sorely needed to feed the future. We have to aim instead for an agricultural sector based on medium-sized, mixed family farms, argues Melle Leenstra, First Secretary for Economic Development and Food Security at the Netherlands embassy in Nairobi.

On June 22, 2015 Rabobank together with FoodFirst, Cordaid and the Dutch Ministries of Foreign and Economic Affairs will host a conference in the Netherlands on the future of farming and food security in Africa. Farming is an appropriate topic in view of the food security challenges the world is facing. Finally this focuses our attention on the men and women who feed us rather than dwelling only on technology or the market. Our collective future depends on farming.

Poor and vulnerable smallholder farmers will not feed the world

The green revolution in Africa has failed once, and might fail again, because policy makers and researchers have been unsuccessful in understanding the social reality of farming in Africa. Farmers have been treated as objects for technology adoption, the market, policy or charity.1 Instead they are the actors who should drive this green revolution if we ever want to sustainably feed an ever larger and more prosperous world population.

For too long agricultural development efforts have targeted semi-subsistence smallholders, while policy makers and practitioners have stressed their poverty and vulnerability. This has reinforced the perception among our African friends that farming is not a profession to aspire to, but rather a part-time, pastime income generating activity.

Let’s be honest about smallholders. They have done great things for Africa. There will be very few African doctors, bankers or lawyers that have not been educated thanks to the efforts of smallholders over the last one or two generations. They have generated income and foreign exchange used to construct buildings and fill roads with cars, allowing African cities to evoke impressions of ‘Africa Rising’.

At the same, the income generating livelihood diversification strategies that smallholders have used to survive, manage risks and allow their children to do better, are preventing smallholdings from being actual enterprises. Too few smallholders re-invest into their farms, which is essential for farming as a business. Also, as the time spent on farming competes with time spent working off farm, labour is a constraint constant. This keeps farmers engaged in low input, low output farming strategies which contribute to nutrient mining: depleting theirs soils. To add to this sense of impending doom, inheritance practices continuously fragment available farmland. Soon, average plot sizes in much of Africa will be too small to make a decent living.

If we want to avoid a scenario of deepened rural poverty, degraded natural resources, urban hunger and social strife, we have to change our vision of farming in Africa.

Large scale corporate farming won’t save us either

This has inspired some people to advocate large scale corporate farming. But that is not a sustainable answer for encouraging growth in African societies either, as also argued in this paper. Across Africa, large tracts of land are reserved for local politicians-businessmen, or for foreign companies to engage in farming. While there are differences in the corporate social responsibility of such agricultural investors, and many do contribute to gainful employment, this may conflict with perceptions – rightly or wrongly – that this infringes on the rights of indigenous Africans. However, there are also economic and ecological concerns about large scale corporate farming. Such farms tend towards high-input monocultures which are not ecologically sustainable. In addition, such farms are not economically optimal in view of diminishing returns to scale.

Medium-sized mixed family farms as sustainable entrepreneurial food security agents

A better answer is to foster the ‘missing middle’ between peasants and plantations.

I strongly believe that medium-sized, mixed family farms producing for the market are the only sustainable answer for food security in Africa. Medium-sized family farms, in which animal production is linked to crop rotation and good trees, are more likely to have optimal returns to scale. Integrated, mixed farming is important. Making informed decisions on crop varieties, rotation schedules and animal husbandry systems that in combination make agricultural and marketing sense will make farmers more resilient to climatic and market shocks. This allows for integrated soil fertility management by re-using plant and animal waste to close the nutrient cycle. This means taking good care of the soils and being less vulnerable to pests and diseases, thus needing less pesticides or chemical fertilizers.

The essential part of this vision is the family farm. Family farms have the potential to capture the strengths and the contributions that fathers, mothers and the youth can bring to creating a dynamic yet sustainable farm. Men, at times, are overconfident risk takers, more interested in publicly presenting what their farm is or can be, rather than sweating to realize their vision. Mothers, on the other hand, have shown to be more interested in getting things done and taken care of. Women, however, can have the tendency to be too modest to see and seize their potential. The combination of these family members – a true joint venture – will bring the best of both worlds. Youth should be involved in the family farm, not only because they are tech-savvy, but as part of succession planning. Family farms should groom one successor to take over the business, when parents retire.

It is a tragedy nowadays that farms are ripped apart in inheritances. It seems as if everyone in Africa wants to own land and nobody wants to be a farmer. That must change.

Towards a joint vision and collective action

To achieve this vision I don’t propose leaving smallholders behind. Smallholders are the current reality. I hope to convince them to buy into this vision and strive to achieve it. By using the cash-flow generated by farming (rather than focusing only on loans) to constantly invest and reinvest into their farms, they could achieve this vision. By constantly investing in increasing productivity and profitability, by optimizing their production and marketing processes and by leasing or buying land to increase their scale they could graduate from being smallholders.

It is also essential to work together. For too long, people have taken advantage of African farmers. This is true for political cooperatives, government marketing boards, exploitative middle men, paternalistic NGOs or unscrupulous multinationals. This has created a deficit in social capital, i.e., trust. Only by working together and with inclusive agri-businesses and responsible service providers, will farmers manage to assert themselves, effectively negotiate and become market players rather than victims of market forces.

But let us also look, beyond smallholders, at other farmers to work with. There are African farmers that have land that has not yet been sub-divided into uneconomic units, but they have long been ignored. Medium-sized and larger indigenous farmers have often been seen as elites who can take care of themselves. By giving these farmers access to practical training and appropriate advice, we can unlock their potential, as this project of the Equity Bank Group and the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Kenya aims to accomplish.

There are also farmers whom Kenyans call ‘Telephone Farmers’. These are urban professionals with access to land and money to invest in farming. Such farmers also provide entry points for supporting farming as a business. If such farmers will see their farms become sustainably profitable, perhaps they can take the decision to either go into farming full-time or otherwise leave farming to focused agricultural professionals.

Farming and farmers should be given back the dignity they deserve. That is why I want to share this vision with partners and stakeholders. Together, convinced of this vision, we can kick-start agriculture as the engine for African growth and prosperity. Let us focus the efforts of policy makers, researchers and practitioners to do just that, just like SNV, Solidaridad, the Equity Group Foundation, the Netherlands Embassy in Kenya, Dutch and Kenyan agri-businesses, and Wageningen UR are trying to do in Kenya.

It is farmers who will feed the future. Let us treat farming in Africa as a vocation. Only then will we be able to make use of the technology of today and tomorrow to sustainably feed Africa and the world.


  1. 1. I argued this point more comprehensively in Leenstra (2014) From Suitcase Farmers to Telephone Farmers.

12 Contributions to “Medium-sized, mixed family farms to feed the future: A vision for farming in Africa”

  1. Bwire Byron
    C/person Buhobe Sec. Sch. Coop. Society ltd

    Really, I wish to appreciate for this well thought and researched presentations. This reflects the picture of farming in Africa. We are hopefull to working with you one time

  2. Bertus Buizer, Buizer Advies
    De heer
    An important reason for farmers to abstain from investing much in their land is the lack of adequate land rights.

    Thank you for this article. To a large extend I agree with the content. However, in my opinion some important things are missing.

    For instance the problem of land grabbing and the way to solve that. An important reason for farmers to abstain from investing much in their land is the lack of adequate land rights.

    In this article the dependence of chemical fertilisers and pesticides is considered as a given. Chemical pesticides, which long have been banned in Europe, are being dumped in Africa. That’s a very big risk for farmers, consumers, environment and ecology. And that causes unnecessary high costs for all of them in terms of both money and health.

    You may also read my article “Organic farming has the best credentials for an adequate sustainable food supply”. See: http://www.sustainablefoodsupply.org/en/organic-farming-has-the-best-credentials-for-an-adequate-sustainable-food-supply/

  3. Calvince Onyuka
    Field officer, CGA
    Focus on medium scale farmers and collective action.

    Thanks Melle for the analysis.

    At cereal Growers Association (CGA) we have been spearheading the collective actions by smallholders farmers.

    Successes have been witnessed, discounted input purchase, markets access through aggregations, bargaining powers etc. but not to forget the challenges. One impediment that stands out in collective action is untrustworthiness, some group leaders have failed to remit return to group members, misappropriate of funds and failure to account. We have embarked on group dynamics capacity buildings, limit access of individual funds by group leaders through having individuals accounts then the money is wired to the accounts directly for instances after produce collective sales. So when approaching the collective actions, the stakeholders/organizations must understand the very basics of collective actions. More too need to be done on groups leadership enhancement.

    Back to medium scale farmers feeding the future. A case study here to note, recently I met a 50-acres of land maize farmer. Through our discussions and observations I realized mechanization was fair, some portion of the land was not in use and willingness to adopt new technologies.

    So in my opinion, these so called elite group have not been given attentions if any little. If we can focus on them then I believe they can feed the future because, they can adopt appropriate technologies since they have resources and willingness.

  4. Rahab Ngumba
    Business Development Advisor
    How can our medium sized mixed family farm benefit ?

    I agree with your analysis. I would like to motivate my clients – family members to invest in these medium sized family farms rather than sub-divide and put up rental buildings. The target farms are in Nakuru, Kajiado, Kitale, Muranga and Nyandarua.

    Please let me know urgently

  5. John Macharia
    Agribusiness Advisor
    Competitiveness, food security and inequality

    Thank you for this interesting article. As has been mentioned by one writer, this article proposes an idea without delving much deeper and providing a clear and unambiguous characteristic of mid level farmers or providing tangible and concise points that governments, NGO’s and other interested stake holders can pick and run with. In kenya and in most African countries there is ambiguity as to who a small holder, mid level or large farmers is. This variation also differs between different agricultural sub sector. Along side defining and categorizing the farmer, there is need to clearly anchor the defination on a component common to farmers in that category. This could be land side, herd size, produce volume, sales turnover etc..This will help explore challenges that they face to be profitable or to scale. This article does not provide us with appropriate lenses with which to look at midlevel farmers across sub sectors and as such does not help us explore or tease out the issues mid-level farmers have; is it financing that they lack, is it adequate mechanization….what is it?. Why arent the mid level farmers motivated to increase production and yields? They have the land and may be relatively well to do, They have family labour and are relatively merchandised…why are they not motivated to feed the nation? It is also not clear why they hold the majic to feeding the masses.

    Small holder farmers have often been termed NINJAs. i.e. No Income, No Jobs and Assets.They often do not have the resources needed for profitable farming and they are also buttressed by livelihood needs such that they rarely reinvest in their farming enterprises. Most of these farmer are called poor because they live below a dollar a day-imagine that, living on a annual income equal to US $ 365 per year. With this kind of income what is there to invest? i would like to argue that most of these farmers are in this situation because of failed social and economic systems that have provided unequal access to productive resources and markets. Inequality is the major reason why nations are imploding and there is a strong link between incomes, food security and security. As such i would like to argue that we need to support approaches that support inclusive development.

    I respectfully disagree that the African green revolution has failed.Tanzania has for the last three years had a bumper harvest and is set to be a major exporter of cereals in the region providing East African nations with food. Malawi and Ethiopia have all had a taste of a green revolution-whether they sustain it is another thing. Non of these increases in national production have been attributed to large, medium or small farmers in isolation. They have been attributed to right policies aimed at boosting national production. Such policies have focused on providing access to high yielding seeds, better blends of fertilizer, appropriate extension support, access to finance etc. As more and more countries focus on meeting commitments made under CAADP and the Malabo declarations ,we should see more and more countries experiencing a green revolution. Further ,as of 2014, 13 African countries had signed up to the new alliance for food security and nutrition. These commitments portend hope rather than gloom in my view.

    A larger issue in my view has to do with competitiveness. Most African economies do not have competitive or comparative advantage in some agricultural sub sectors and unless serious technological advancements are made food security is non the less threatened whether you are a large scale or small holder farmers.The farm gate price of milk in Uganda is US $ 0.1. In kenya the farm gate price is US $ 0.33. Increased cost of inputs and taxation of feeds is affecting all dairy farmers in kenya alike making them regionally uncompetitive. 1 MT of maize in South Africa is about US $ 200. The same MT of maize in Maputo is US $ 350. In Kenya, Maize prices in Kisumu and Mombasa can be as high as US $ 400-450 per MT. In Malawi and Mozambique the cost of credit is as high as 3% per month. These competitiveness issues do not discriminate and affect all farmers alike. Large scale dairy farmers in kenya are abandoning dairy farming in favour of more profitable ventures like fodder farming. Maize farmers in southern african countries are abandoning maize in favor of soya bean that fetches higher prices.

    I don’t think focusing on a segment of the farming community will feed the masses. However, the youth in my view show great promise largely because they are not burdened by what i would call “poverty mentality”. They are interested in Agriculture when it is profitable and not for subsistence. This is not to equate poverty to subsistence, but the biggest hurdle small holder farmers have to overcome has to do with mental framing of the abstraction called poverty.If these group of farmers have access to the right resources, they are more likely to be engage in farming as a business.

    Unlocking systemic bottlenecks constraining national competitiveness will unlock value for all.


    • Melle

      Dear John,
      Thanks for this contribution. I agree the food security challenge is complex that is why it is sometimes neccesary to change perspective and focus on critical binding constraints. The core of my argument is that foucussed professional agricultural entrepreneurship is not as abundant in Africa as it should be. Many donor agencies have moved around agriculture looking at various systemic bottlenecks without putting farmers socio-economic reality central. Insitutions like Agra for instance treat farmers like poor and vulnarable objects to be reached by policies and interventions, not like the actors who can make or break the green revolution agenda. My argument is not that medium farmers are the alpha and omega of agricultural policies. Rather sustainable commercially orriented family farms with economically optimal farm sizes (which I assume to be medium sized) are the sector build up we should strive for.
      But I agree we should delve deeper and study farmers realities better. This is an open invitation to join that exploration.

      • John
        Agribusiness Advisor
        Competitiveness, food security and inequality

        Thanks Melle,

        Indeed i an very interested in joining the journey to help Africa solve it issues.

        Lets keep the discussions moving.


  6. Inger
    Green revolution?

    Thank you for this article, interesting read.
    Can you elaborate a bit more on what you consider to be the ‘green revolution’ that should come about by focusing on medium sized mixed family farms? The use of this term in your article is a bit confusing, as to me the green revolution is associated more with the large scale, industrial style farming that you also consider not to be the future. I think it is clear that ‘the green revolution’ as we have seen it has its downfalls in terms of environmental degradation e.a. I’m just wondering how you see this, to understand better what you mean in terms of your vision.

    • Melle

      Thanks for the comment. I do not fully share the associations you have with the green revolution. What I see as the green revolution we should aspire to, is that farmers have access to and choice of appropriate technologies that will allow them to sustainibly increase productivity and profitability of their farms. I do not believe in input intensive monocultures, but that does not mean I do not believe in agricultural technologies. There is a middle way between ‘the peasant mode of production’ and ‘industrial farming’, that is what we must focus on.

  7. Luc Groot
    Advisor, Agriterra
    Agricultural development should be driven by farmer-ownership and profitable business

    Thanks for this great read. A lot of valid points are made about the importance of treating farmers as entrepreneurs and pushing them to invest more in their farms and work together. Nevertheless, the difference between the different type of farmers mentioned are not really clear to me, and how organisations or government should target the focus group (medium-size mixed farmers) neither. Your point on “graduating from being smallholders” by improving production, marketing and scaling is clear and vital. I think we all agree, but what kind of policy or investments or approach is needed for that improvement, cooperation and investment? That is the key question.

    In our opinion the most important pillars for achieving your model of cooperation and investment in inclusive agri-business practices, is by focusing on cooperation models which are farmer-owned. So, at Agriterra we focus on existing cooperatives, farm groups and federations. A critical mass of entrepreneurial and cooperative farmers have to be involved to make development effective and sustainable. You channel these “real farmers” by solely working with these type of organisations. At the same time you make a clear statement to the non-organised farmers, ‘we only work with farmers who show they want to and do cooperate in practice’. Agriterra believes that if we would follow that same principle, much more could be achieved in Africa and everywhere in the world in agricultural development.

    If we look in the EU today, farmer members of agricultural cooperatives have the best deal in comparison to other agribusiness models. The model is more sustainable. As soon as cooperatives or organisations, owned by its suppliers or sellers (the farmers), the focus of these type of companies is much more on the long-term sustainability in ecological, economic and generational sense. Ask Friesland Campina members about their prospects and compare it with dairy farmers in the UK who are now struggling with supermarkets and are unable to add value to their own products, because they are not organized. We need to make sure in Africa that we get more profitable agribusinesses, but it should be automatically beneficial for more people in the food chain and for the long-term. You ensure this by this focus.

    By this focus on organized farmers which own the group or cooperative, you can already make a clear and easy division in your own policy towards helping farmers. If, and the results show, farmers work together in cooperatives; prices, income and profitability are higher, as the risk of volatility in prices for example, is lower. Key in this approach, farmers have to invest in the cooperative as soon as they enter. Farm groups of federations have to work with an annual contribution. This is the social and economic contract which is needed. A farmer risks to lose his investment, when he doesn’t deliver on what is asked by his cooperative in the form of quality or quantity of the product. The cooperative or farm group is obliged to invest in its members productivity and knowledge to be more profitable, or they will lose members.

    Agriterra helps cooperatives and farm groups to strike this balanced social and economic contract between farmers and their leaders or management (governance), make sure the products farmers produce are of a good quantity, quality and affordable (professional extension services), make sure value is added by the cooperative or group so they get a bigger piece of the consumer price (business development), a lower cost price for the farmer (extension) or better government policy (lobby), and their financial and operational management is improved to attract investments (financial management & capitalization strategies). This efficient cooperative or farm group can organize themselves to get better price deals in the chain and market (input and output). Also politically they have more power when they organize, at least locally. And when they are successful, other farmers want to enter into their cooperative or group. And all the others will disappear to the city or sustain themselves with other business, maybe even by working in the Agricultural cooperative processing facilities in the region.

    This is how we would see the change happening as you envision it. Of course there are more models and there are differences in the approach depending on the agricultural products/chains. As always, there is no magic bullet. Nevertheless focus on ownership by farmers and on achieving profitable business that is able to compete in the market, is the key to getting sustainable development in agriculture. And also the only way to keep attracting people to farming. We should facilitate this ownership and profitability, by helping them to find out what works for them and show them our own Agricultural experiences. This will result in huge changes in the farm structures in Africa I am convinced of that, but this will be driven by farmers from the countries themselves. And not decided top-down by NGOs, governments or the “big bad” agribusiness. It will be their own choice and path.

    We have some great examples in Kenya to show you our “model of change”. We invite you to visit one of the cooperatives we work with. You can find our different partners and projects in Kenya here: https://www.agriterra.org/en/country/view/4175 . My colleague working in Kenya will drop you an email.

    • Melle

      Thanks for your comments. I agree farmer-led businesses are very important for giving farmers economies of scale and negotiation power. At the same time many farmers have been disappointed by politically hi-jacked cooperatives. For us farmer-led businesses are an important entry point for supporting agricultural development. I am happy to have had the opportunity to have visited some of the coops Agriterra works with in Kenya, and would like to see more. Keep up the good work.


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