The Business of Agriculture: What’s missing?

By Alison Griffith, Practical Action, and George McAllister, Garden Africa

The Business of Agriculture: What’s missing?

By Alison Griffith,Senior Policy and Practice Advisor, Private Sector and Markets, Practical Action, and George McAllister, Director of Programmes, Garden Africa

Smallholders have the potential to become the backbone of agricultural growth in Africa and to supply our growing demand for food – if they have the right environment. The World Bank’s proposal to develop the Benchmarking the Business of Agriculture (BBA) index to promote the commercial agriculture sector could make a major contribution to creating that environment but only if it takes full account of what smallholders need.

There is much to welcome in the World Bank’s proposals and the initiative it, and the donors, are taking to develop this tool. It should help countries learn from each other and identify areas where the environment for agricultural growth can be improved. The snapshots already include many issues relevant to smallholders – such as access to credit, proximity to rural infrastructure and security of tenure.

However, there are some significant omissions from the BBA that, if left unaddressed, will mean it falls short of its ambitions. These issues are vital to smallholder farmers. The African Smallholder Farmers Group has identified a number of gaps that the BBA needs to fill. The first two concern smallholder farmers’ capacity.

Research and advisory services

The BBA includes issues, such as access to inputs, credit, water and infrastructure, that are fundamental to smallholders’ access to markets but excludes other vital issues, such as farmers’ ability to take advantage of appropriate technology and sustainable techniques through effective research and advisory services.

If policy makers in the agricultural ministries are getting data on almost everything but the actual position of smallholders the danger is that they will focus their attention elsewhere. Advisory and extension services could be measured for effectiveness, accessibility and affordability and this should specifically include the provision of services to women.

Producer organisations

Smallholder farmers collaborate to try to work more effectively with the private, public and NGO sectors. Without the presence of producer organisations these sectors would find it difficult to work with smallholders. Not all producer organisations are effective, but government policy can help promote those that are, enabling farmers to benefit from economies of scale in access to inputs, for example, and in working with others – such as companies looking to expand their markets or supply chains. Contract farming is one type of arrangement that promotes collaboration but it is not the only, and may not be the best, option in every context. Farmers need to have choice and if they choose contract farming this needs more support than just strong contracting laws. They need investment in their capacity to take advantage of contract.


The sustainability of smallholder farming systems is of utmost importance – but it is largely absent from the BBA.

Smallholder agriculture is thought to produce 70% of the food consumed globally – the sustainability of their production will therefore be hugely significant in reducing emissions.

The challenge is to create greater yields, better nutrition and higher net incomes in a sustainable manner.

The outputs of sustainable practices need to be defined in terms that acknowledge the resulting ecological, socio-economic and nutritional benefits – as well as increases in yields. This requires a broader understanding of the types of inputs (namely ecological, genetic and socio-economic) which can be used to boost productivity.

The BBA should mainstream sustainability across the BBA.


Women constitute 70% of farmers in Africa and grow 80-90% of the food, but remain excluded from so many of the rights, resources and services that are so important to their ability to increase productivity, access markets and generate income. This results in them producing on average 20-30% less than their male counterparts. Giving them equal access to agricultural resources would translate into a 2.5-4% increase in agricultural output in the developing world.

Gender should therefore be a theme that runs throughout the BBA. A starting point could be USAID’s Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index which measures women’s access to vital resources, such as ownership of assets; credit; involvement in farmers’ associations; and time.

We have been encouraged by our discussions with the World Bank so far. They have assured us that other parts of the Agricultural Transformation Index (ATI) ,will look at some of these areas greater detail. Our concern, however, is that development of the rest of the ATI has not yet begun and the risk is, without this wider framework, the BBA will become the dominant tool while excluding these vital issues.

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