Knowledge for Development

Improving the Productivity of ACP Family Farm Systems

Author: Toon Defoer

Date: 29/06/2006


Family farming, commonly considered old-fashioned, resistant to change and unable to effectively respond to market opportunities, is now gaining recognition as a viable model for the future of agriculture in the ACP region (SOS Faim, 2004). In family farming systems, the family is the centre of planning, decision making and action taking, operating within a network of relations at the higher community level (Mazzucato et al., 2001). The close link between (extended) family labour and farming activities has important implications for the variety of crops grown, livestock reared and management practices adopted. Apart from food production for food and income security, family farms have an environmental and social function that is essential in maintaining agro-ecological integrity, and socio-economic development while contributing to improving the well-being of rural communities within a context of social cohesion, solidarity and sharing of responsibilities and income.


In contrast with the general perception that family farms are non-productive and resistant to change, further analysis shows that they demonstrate a substantial degree of flexibility and capacity to adapt to changing circumstances. This picture is clearly more positive than the pessimistic view of the persistent agricultural crisis that exists especially in Africa, because of the conclusions drawn from aggregated figures presented by international agencies e.g. the World Bank. Toulmin and Guèye (2005) provide data showing a remarkable degree of stability for some food crops, increased production for others, and substantial growth in export crops in several West African states, despite the often adverse climatic conditions and unfavourable economic and policy environments.

Farmers have also been adapting their cropping patterns and diversifying food supply in response to growing demands from urban centres (Cour and Snrech, 1998). These success stories are however not blueprints but are the result of a high degree of creativity and innovativeness of all those involved. Clearly, some have been more successful than others in improving their living conditions as not all have benefited from this development. The family farming model therefore hides a high degree of heterogeneity and has evolved into a wide range of location-specific forms, as a result of farmers varying capacity to respond to diverse and dynamic agro-ecological, socio-economic, organisational and political conditions.

Over the last decades, experience has shown that conventional linear approaches to development and change are not sufficient to deal with the complex nature and responsiveness needed for dynamic adaptations of the family farming model in the ACP Group of States. To be effective, agricultural support measures, strategies and policies need to take the local level diversity into account and allow for continuous adaptation in situ by the key stakeholders. As a response, various farmer participatory approaches have been developed, with varying degrees of farmer involvement in setting the research and development agendas and developing and adapting technologies to local conditions using approaches such as Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) and Participatory Technology Development (PTD) (Chambers, 1992; Veldhuizen et al., 1997).

During recent years, greater emphasis has been placed on promoting and encouraging farmer learning and innovation through social learning within farmer groups with ‘external’ services (mostly research and extension services, governmental and non-governmental) facilitating the process. Some of these approaches namely, Farmer Field Schools (FFS) (Gallagher, 1998), Participatory Extension Approach (PEA) (Hagmann et al., 1998), Comités de Investigaçion Agropecuaria Local (CIALs) (Ashby et al., 1995) and Participatory Learning and Action Research (PLAR) (Defoer and Wopereis, 2005) are being institutionalized by national research and extension services and NGOs. Interestingly, most of these approaches do not only deal with site-specific technological issues but tend to place the issues within a broader context involving organisational, institutional, social, market and policy aspects of rural innovation that cut across various scales (Defoer et al., 2004). Finding answers for the complex problems faced by the wide diversity of family farms requires skilful facilitation of learning-by-doing, innovation and change processes, analysis of the problems and challenges and systems thinking involving a wide variety of disciplines including perspectives from technical, social, economic and ecological specialists and the farm family.

Such farmer learning and innovation approaches can however only be effectively up-scaled if they are embedded in broader partnership arrangements involving the major stakeholders at the local, national and international levels. These include not only farmer groups, researchers and extension workers but also policy makers, bankers and rural financiers, suppliers, traders, processing agri-businesses, retailers and other actors in the production to consumption chain who are important stakeholders in the innovation processes. Within such a multi-stakeholder system, innovation is the product of interactions, negotiated compromises of the diverse viewpoints and interests of the individual stakeholders and of collective decision-making and action. The starting point is not the new or improved technology, product or process, but the ‘opportunity’ or ‘challenge’ identified by one or more of the key stakeholders, be it farming families or local entrepreneurs, and their search to better valorise this opportunity or respond effectively to the challenge. It is therefore clear that in such innovation processes research is no longer the only source of knowledge and technology and extension are no longer solely responsible for boosting adoption of new technologies.

There are several examples of farmers, often organized within village-level group settings, taking up new roles with respect to provision of input, diffusion of information and establishing linkages to credit and saving systems (Maatman et al., 2004; KIT, Faida Mali and IIRR, 2006). However, dealing with local and regional entrepreneurs such as input dealers, traders, credit suppliers, food processors, and wholesalers is often not a skill of small scale farmers. There remains a need for strengthening local-level producer organisations to pool demand and negotiate for external inputs and credit facilities, to develop market linkages and to integrate so that they become key players in relevant commodity value chains in partnership with local and regional entrepreneurs. Wide stakeholder involvement in such innovation processes from the outset is of utmost importance as is the creation of a forum for negotiation to increase the competitiveness of local and regional value chains. Traditional services providers such as research and extension services and NGOs can play a major role as facilitators of platforms for improving interaction among the key stakeholders to respond to opportunities and development challenges.

Issues and suggestions

Family farms and their ability and capacity to respond to new opportunities and challenges constitute a viable model for improving agriculture in the ACP region but several issues require specific attention to ensure their future growth and sustainability:


    The market for staple food commodities is continuously increasing, because of rapidly growing urban centres, accompanied by higher demands for more diversified products, mainly fruits and vegetables. The diversity within family farming systems has the potential to respond to these growing specific and varied demands while safeguarding its human, social, cultural and environmental functions and adopting competitiveness as the leading principle.



    Within the context of globalization and liberalization of markets and trade, competition from cheap and often subsidized imports remains a growing threat to local and regional producers and suppliers and increasing revenues of family farms. National and sub-regional producer organisations and associations such as ROPPA (Réseau des organisations paysannes et des producteurs de l'Afrique de l'ouest; West African farmer and producer organizations network) need to lobby for agricultural policies, at national, regional and international fora, that promote the ACP family farm model as a viable alternative to large commercial farms once the playing field is level.



    Enhancing the competitiveness of agricultural products and adding value to fresh produce as a means to do this should continue to be high on the priority agenda. Close integration and interaction of family farms and their organisations in the input supply and commodity value chains can be adopted as a strategy for achieving economies of scale. Such integration can be obtained e.g. through the formation of local or sub-regional agri-business clusters or networks that include relevant key stakeholders such as farmer associations, local entrepreneurs and bankers working together through a process of collective action learning around ‘niche’ commodities in view of reducing costs, adding value, increasing incomes of those involved and thereby competing with alternative products on the market (Porter, 1990).



    Learning and innovating together calls for new forms of inter-institutional collaboration and interaction and ‘soft’ skills such as negotiation, communication, conflict resolution, planning, organisation, and management but especially developing a ‘common culture’ of open information, communication, transparency, trust and willingness to analyse and learn from mistakes. Such capacities and skills can be acquired through learning-by-doing in situ, for example by monitoring and coaching local innovation networks and clusters of actors and supporting inter-institutional arrangements that stimulate innovation (, 2006).



    While major attention needs to be put on innovation and capacity building at local grassroots level for all stakeholders involved, these processes need to be supported by an enabling national and regional institutional and policy environment that promotes farmer organisations, associations and federations, facilitates the participation of the private sector, access to credit, and inter-institutional collaboration and stimulates the set-up and working of national innovation platforms.



    It is important to prepare future generations of agricultural professionals and to integrate additional competencies requiring 'soft skills' into the curricula of agricultural schools and universities, which will reduce the need to continuously re-train professionals to facilitate and support effective partnerships with stakeholders involved in innovation and lead innovation processes.


July 2006

Toon Defoer, independent consultant, professional associate of the International Centre for development oriented Research in Agriculture (ICRA), Caylus, France.


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