Knowledge for Development

Changing farming strategies with a closing farm frontier and urbanisation in dryland Africa- Are Researchers Aware?

Author: Mary Tiffen

Date: 08/02/2007


In many parts of dryland Africa most suitable land is already farmed due to the expansion of rural populations. This means that land has become a scarce resource. Those who want to enlarge a farm do so by buying or renting in land, or in some extreme cases, if sufficiently powerful, grabbing or confiscating it. In such areas fallowing land is no longer possible. To maintain fertility, farmers have to turn to other strategies like manuring or using chemical fertilisers. Besides, there is also little land available for communal grazing, except perhaps on roadside verges. Crop residues and the dry season weed growth have become the valued personal property of the cultivator. This is now the position in all areas where the population has risen above 40 persons per km2. The way the land has filled can be illustrated by the changes in the former Kano Province of Nigeria between 1960 and 1991 (Figure 1). Here, farmers seeking new land must move out of their home state, for there is no longer any free land either in the north, near the Niger border, or in what was tsetse infested bush in the south (Tiffen 2001). This can also be seen in Senegal (Ba et al. 2000) . In some west African countries there is still some cultivable land available, either on the desert margins, where farming becomes very risky, (for example in Niger), or, in what is termed the Middle Belt in West Africa, where new settlers are cutting bush and forcing the tsetse fly to retreat. In much of Kenya and a great part of Uganda, land is scarce, but there is rather more uncultivated, and unclaimed, bush in Zambia and Zimbabwe.


Urbanisation impels further changes in farming

Many researchers appreciate that, with a closing farm frontier, farmers now have the incentive to cultivate more carefully, often using animal drawn implements, and to replace nutrients either by manure or chemical fertiliser, particularly if there is a market for what they can produce. However, the market is still thought of as the export market. Many researchers have failed to recognize another more recent population change - growing urbanisation. It can be argued that there is a tipping point, when rates of urbanisation accelerate, while rural growth slows, ceases, and may eventually decline (Tiffen 2003). Many Sub-Saharan African (SSA) countries are reaching this tipping point, with a rural population growth of less than 0.5% per annum (Figure 2). In 2000 the UN estimated that the population of Eastern Africa was 24% urban, Southern Africa 54% urban, and Western Africa 39%. These figures are already out of date, for some towns are growing by 5-8% per annum. For example, towns in the area depicted in Figure 1 grew by 5.3% p.a. between the censuses of 1952 and 1991, and in the Région de Diourbel, Senegal, by 7.9% p.a. between the censuses of 1988 and 2002 (Tiffen 2006).

Figure 2. Annual percentage growth in rural human population, 1998-2000, in SSA countries having a population of over 10 million. Countries arranged in order of population size.
Source: Calculated from the World Bank African Database, 2002.

It is important to be aware of the growing urbanisation, for it impels further changes in farming. First of all, it changes the market for farm products. Secondly, it changes the availability of labour, for many young people will be in towns, or in school preparing for a non-farm occupation. Thirdly, it creates a need for capital, to change and adapt farming to new markets in a situation where land is already in short supply. Not all farmers can respond, and some are forced out of farming. To help this group, it is necessary to promote more productive jobs in the towns by seeing they have the necessary infrastructure such as electricity (Tiffen 2003).

The growing towns demand food. In some countries national taxes and subsidies, or foreign subsidies on exports, or fixed and undervalued exchange rates, have created food preferences for rice, and to a lesser extent wheat, which means that areas near ports import the preferred grains. This situation is most strongly observed in Senegal, where the expanding town population prefers rice to millet. However, in other countries, the town population consumes mainly local cereals, root crops and legumes, such as sorghum, maize, millet, cassava, beans and groundnuts. Nigeria, especially after the devaluations of the 1980s, is an example. The contrast in food imports per head between Senegal and Nigeria is shown in Figure 3. In countries like Nigeria, the farmers have a great incentive to increase production of local foodstuffs, and traders reach out along every available road to bring food from farm to urban market. Such food crops have become far more important as a source of cash for the farmer than the traditional export crops, particularly in the dryland areas.

Figure 3. Food imports per capita, 1981-2000, in constant US dollars, Nigeria and Senegal
Source: Calculated from the World Bank African Database, 2002. Nigerian data not available in constant US$ after 1997, but the current US $ series shows little change.

It will be noted that these food crops also produce fodder for animals. On average, urban incomes are slightly higher per capita than rural ones, leading urban people to consume more meat, milk, vegetables etc. to supplement their staple food than do rural people. Hence, farmers find that the demand for livestock and livestock products is rising even faster than the demand for cereals and grains. However, the areas well linked to the towns no longer have free grazing land; for valuable land is cultivated or fenced. Hence, if farmers are to respond to the rising demand for milk and meat, they must feed their animals mainly on crop residues, and they often also pen or tether them so that they do not damage crops. This means investment in fencing or stabling. It also means that crop residues can be sold, either by making the owners of transhumant cattle pay for the right to graze them in situ, or by cutting them to sell by the bundle in the local market.

The more valuable fodder, such as cowpea and groundnut hay, attract a higher price than the less valuable, such as sorghum stalks (Hassan, Hoffmann, & Steinbach 1998). The higher priced fodder can bear the cost of lorry transport, as any observer of traffic in the right season can witness in densely settled areas. Farmers may also find the use of medication and food supplements worthwhile. Fattening penned animals can be very profitable, but it does entail higher labour costs than herding, as food and water must be carried to the animals on a daily basis (Mortimore & Adams 1999). This intensification of livestock keeping methods means that there are more livestock per hectare as the area under housing and crops increases (Bourn & Wint 1994). Thus, in two rural districts of Gombe State, Nigeria, human density per km2 has risen from 74 and 54 in the 1963 census to 184 and 174 respectively in the 1991 census, while cattle per km2 went up from about 8 per km2 to 20-50 in the dry season (Tiffen2006), based on maps in Bourn et al. (1994). There are, of course, also even larger numbers of sheep and goats. While in the 1960s these two areas were famous for the production of cotton grown in rotation with sorghum; now, they send cowpeas and cattle to markets throughout Nigeria, as well as providing the growing number of local towns with maize and sorghum.

Some farmers with livestock may also decide to invest in a well or dam. However, these high cost structures may be more justifiable for dairy enterprises than for fattening. They are common, for example, in parts of Kenya, to enable farmers to keep cross-bred dairy cattle (Fall 2000). While cattle and small stock elsewhere also produce milk, which may be a valued part of home diets, or sold locally after some processing, it is often a by-product to the main purpose of rearing for the meat market.

It can easily be understood that mixed livestock and crop enterprises require working capital for inputs as well as investment capital, chiefly for purchasing in stock, but also for creating structures (stabling, storage units for fodder, fences, water points, etc). There is a route into livestock ownership for the careful small farmer by incremental additions, often starting with poultry, moving through sheep and goats, and then adding cattle. But others find themselves unable to take this path, scrabbling to support their families by a variety of non-farm work, or farm labour for others, and eventually, perhaps, having to sell land. The contrast between the successful and the unsuccessful farm family was well shown by a study in the former groundnut basin of Senegal, illustrated in Figure 4.

The groups were defined by their ability to cover family needs for millet and groundnuts. Group 1 were farmers who covered less than 6 months, and who bought in substantial amounts of food (mainly rice). Group 2 covered their own needs for 6-12 months, and group 3 for 12 or more months. Groups 1 and 3 were both about 29% of sampled farmers, group 2, 41%. (Faye et al. 2001, Faye & Fall 2000). The Senegal Government still considered the study area part of the groundnut basin, producing the raw materials for the country’s traditional export of groundnut oil. However, follow-up questioning of the farmers showed that many did not sell groundnuts. They all grew groundnuts, firstly for family food, secondly for fodder for the livestock which were the main source of farm profits and which also produced manure for their millet, and only thirdly, for sale - and some of those sales took the form of home-produced groundnut oil for the local towns (Mortimore & Tiffen 2004). Their investments followed profits: the better off farmers of group 3 invested 19% of their cash incomes in buying animals, 2% in equipment, 3% in animal food or medication, and only 2% in crop inputs. The main animals sold were sheep, especially for the great Moslem festivals and pilgrimages to the holy city of Touba. Group 2 farmers followed the same investment pattern, but could invest only 12% of a smaller cash income in livestock. Group 1 farmers could not invest.

Figure 4: Total income per household member and income sources in Diourbel for three groups of farmers, agricultural year 1999-2000, in FCFA
Source: Faye and Fall (2000): US $1 = FCFA 615.7 in 1999. Income per head was low, but possibly not quite as low as this chart suggests, as household heads would not have counted 'private' income earned by adult wives, sons and daughters.

It is not hard to believe that many group 1 farmers will sooner or later find it attractive to sell their land and move completely into a non-farm occupation. Indeed, in a study in Maradi, Niger, evidence of such land sales was found (Boubacar 2000). In Maradi, farmers had moved almost completely out of groundnuts into the production of millets, cowpeas and tiger nuts for the Nigerian towns not far across the border, and there too, the wealthier farmers were characterised by successful investment in livestock (Mortimore et al. 2001).

There are some alternative investments. In areas which are both near a town, and with ground water at an accessible level, farmers may invest in a water source for vegetable production. On a recent visit to Gombe State, Nigeria, (June 2006) a contrast was found between a government project on which farmers could cultivate 0.1 ha of rice, getting 2 crops per year, and paying Naira 1,500 for water, and a nearby farmer, with possibly 0.8 ha, on which he grew green vegetables for 8 months, from November-July. These matured every 27-30 days, giving him 6-8 crops. He then took a rice crop in the wet season. He paid N1,000 every 5 days for water. Other working capital needs were for fertiliser and labour. The water came from a borehole dug by a private contractor, and was paid for by the local farmers’ association. (Naira 1000 = Euro 6.33, June 2006).

Another popular investment, at least in countries where education is seen as a possible route to a good non-farm job for a child, is education. This absorbs large amounts of family capital in Kenya, where fees for secondary education are substantial, (Nzioka 2000, Gichuki et al. 2000) but much less in countries where rural people rate the local education as poor -for example, in Nigeria, if the teachers are unpaid and unmotivated (Tiffen2001) - or if they think their children are unlikely to succeed, because of the language barrier, and even if successful, likely to be alienated from their home roots - as in Senegal (Wilson Fall 2000). In Kenya, even in poor districts, almost every boy and girl gets at least a primary education, because it is felt essential that every child can communicate, read and write at least in Swahili. As one farmer said, 'you won’t get a job even as a herd boy unless you can read the directions on packets'.

Farmers still find livestock a useful 'bank', to store funds which can be used in case of ill fortune, or to meet heavy financial needs that occur at intervals (weddings, illness etc, or, in Kenya, school fees), but it would be totally wrong to think that they do not also consider them as commercial assets. Farmers in Senegal and elsewhere decide if it is better in a given year and market situation to invest in 5 lambs or 500 kg of groundnut seed (Schoonmaker Freudenberger & Schoonmaker Freudenberger 1993).

Changes in farming research needed: respond, like farmers, to rapidly changing societies

Why is it that the profound changes going on in farming as urbanisation increases are not always recognised by researchers? Partly it is because researchers are traditional: they have always regarded crops, particularly crops destined for export, as the main source of farm cash, and the main generator of national income. This also is frequently the point of view of their government, and of aid donors, who provide the funds that researchers need. But farmers and traders cannot afford to be bound by tradition; they must react to changes in the market for their products, and in the price of the factors of production, land, labour and capital, if they are to survive and support their families. The need for market information is so important that in some countries, some of them invest in mobile phones. They must either take up new types of crop, or buy new inputs to keep their animals healthy, or go out of business and become workers usually in the informal urban sector.

It is time, therefore, for those who study farm economics, and those who decide where research funds should be spent, to adjust, like the farmers, to the rapidly changing societies in which they live. In their farm studies, they need to take into account the streams of income flowing from livestock (meat and milk, sales of draft power), as well as from crops, the costs associated with rearing livestock, and the value of the disregarded crop residues. They need to ask, not merely what the income sources are this year, with good rains, but also, what happened last year, with bad rains, for in good years, livestock may be bought in, and in bad years, the capital represented by livestock is drawn down. A livestock sale is income in some circumstances, and a capital loss in other cases. Even more, researchers need to ask what changes the farmer has made in his or her farm over the last ten years, and what investments they hope to make in the future. They will find few farmers without ideas on this subject. For an example, see Mbogoh (2000). And to get an idea of what changes they may expect to find, and therefore, how to design their questionnaire, they should talk to a few traders in the nearest town, who earn their living by watching the trends and changes. The chief butcher will soon enlighten them on whether local urban sales are going up or down, and the average throughput in his market per week, while the head of the cattle or sheep traders’ association will have a good idea of weekly numbers sent to other towns. These days, some traders will have their own written records, particularly in countries where schools teach reading and writing in the local vernacular. (They may also have a computer and use emails and internet banking in towns with the necessary facilities, as was recently found in Gombe town, Nigeria). It is time for researchers to come out of their ivory tower and the dilapidated library, to abandon, even if only for a short time, their own computer, and to examine what their country men and women are doing. They need to recognise the talents and abilities of those who farm the drylands of Africa, and who are changing their portfolio of crops and livestock in response to the growing local urban markets.

This summary is based on Tiffen, (2006), which gives more details on the methodologies and problems in evaluating livestock income, and draws also on Drylands Research Working Papers by several authors. These can be downloaded from I am grateful to Michael Mortimore and to all my fellow researchers in the studies Drylands Research made in districts of Senegal, Nigeria, Niger and Kenya, 1998-2000. The Department for International Development, United Kingdom, funded most of this research.

By Mary Tiffen (2001) Orchard House, Tower Hill Road, Crewkerne, TA18 8BJ UK


1 Touba is officially non-urban - a communauté rurale in the census of 1988, but estimated at 300,000 in 1993 (Gueye 2002). In our estimates of urban population, we classified it as urban, as it is without doubt a city.


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