New research announced today by scientists at CABI confirms that a recently introduced crop-destroying armyworm caterpillar is now spreading rapidly across Mainland Africa and could spread to tropical Asia and the Mediterranean in the next few years, becoming a major threat to agricultural trade worldwide.
Financial inclusion has made considerable progress in recent years. There are now a wide range of financial products which can help small farmers: debt financing, short term working capital to finance purchasing of inputs, long term working capital to finance machinery, equity and factoring. Whereas banks used not to want to go the ‘last mile’, ICT innovations have made it possible and profitable to do so. Vision Fund, for example, has over 1.2 million customers.
There is nonetheless still a large financing gap for smallholders: $50billion is being offered, but over $200 billion is needed. This means that smallholders often have to resort to loan sharks. In India for example 37% of loans are still from the informal sector with interest rates of 20-40%.
Seeds are the unsung heroes of agriculture, and modern varieties provide beneficial traits such as drought tolerance and cooking quality. Some varieties are even designed to provide a platform with which to provide other products, such as seed treatments conferring additional insect and disease protection.
The lack of modern varieties, particularly in developing countries, is a major constraint on smallholder productivity. A commonly quoted figure of 35% penetration of modern varieties in Africa is probably an overestimate and the real figure is closer to 20-25%. As an example there are no modern varieties used on 6 million hectares of sorghum in Mali and the situation is similar for groundnuts.
ICTs play a pivotal role in facilitating solutions for smallholder farmers and the markets they are trying to access. For GLOBALG.A.P., the world’s leading farm assurance program, the only way to make the auditing of the 160,000 farms it covers economically viable is through technological solutions. CABI’s Plantwise programme also relies on ICTs for collecting data from plant clinics and to share plant health knowledge via the Knowledge Bank. Similarly, the provision of micro-finance and insurance services for smallholder farmers has only been made possible through advances in mobile technology.
The issue of land ownership and reform is one of the biggest challenges facing agriculture in Africa and other emerging economies. Land ownership is a key driver of investment in agricultural production. Without title to land or even an address, farmers’ access to credit and insurance can be limited. Land sales are prohibited in China (although land titling and consolidation is now being looked at by the government as part of its agricultural reforms), and constrained in India and many African countries.
It is commonly believed that there are around 500 million small farms – defined as being less than 2 hectares – in the world. The conventional wisdom is that the number of small farms is increasing whilst farm sizes are getting smaller, and this trend will continue for 20-30 years. However there is a paucity of reliable data and some debate as to what the trends are in terms of numbers of small farms, the average farm size and the relative productivity of small and large farms. Censuses are only carried out every 10 years and their country coverage is incomplete. Existing data can sometimes be conflicting and open to different interpretations. Whatever the precise number and trends, smallholders will remain an important sector of world agriculture and are the mainstay for food security in most developing countries.