Smallholder Communities: A Symbiotic Association

TractorThresherEgyptOptWhen working with smallholders, it might be worth considering emphasizing communities, rather then individual smallholder producers or farmer groups. If so, the communities may best be viewed as comprised of individual private entrepreneurs divided between smallholder producers and support service providers. The support service providers would include the family enterprises, such as shops and kiosks that provide inputs and purchase produce as well as other not producible essential domestic commodities such as soap, cooking oil, wheat flour, etc, as well as the tractor-thresher combination depicted from Egypt, and even the senior gentlemen with his well used peddle operated Singer sewing machine, sitting in the shade and adding yet another patch to well-worn faded shirt or pants of his clients. It could also include the small village mills used to mill rice or maize that can substantially reduce the domestic drudgery, mostly for women, providing them more leisure time in the evening or allowing them to come to the field better rested with more energy for field work as discussed under Studies Needed.

The question is “what is the relation between these smallholder producers and support service providers”? It is often considered, primarily by host civil servants and development advisors with vested interest in promoting state or quasi-state enterprises, including farmer cooperatives, to be exploitative of the smallholders. However, this may be more conjecture against vested interests than solid supportable facts. Thus, a closer look may indicate a more symbiotic than exploitive relationship. With a basically Financially-Suppressed Economy, there really is not enough money available for the service providers to become exploitive. Most might just be making a modest living for their families or actually be as impoverished as the producers as noted for the Tomato Vender in Lusaka, Zambia or the Banana Trader in Uganda.

Also, most of the service providers within the village were most likely once smallholders themselves. They drifted into support services probably by doing some marketing or obtaining inputs as favors for their neighbors while make a bus trip to the town. They found providing services better than farming and eventually gave up farming. They could also be individuals that obtain a contract for a couple years as guest workers in the Persian Gulf or South Africa. This then provided the capital for the basic equipment purchase, be it a used tractor, grain mill, or starting capital for an input/marketing business. In any of these situations, the service providers remain an integral part of the community and desire to maintain good relations with their smallholder neighbors.

If this is primarily a symbiotic relationship, then assisting the over-extended smallholders, who may be working beyond the Limited Calories Available to them, may be best done by working indirectly within the community to enhance the support services provided by family enterprises. This would be particularly true of those services offering drudgery relief such as the grain mills mentioned above or contract mechanization services as depicted. The critical concern may be access to these services, as opposed to total or partial ownership. Partial ownership would be organized via credit clubs or other farmer organizations as part of development projects. Such partial ownership needs to be carefully evaluated to make certain the machinery has a full service life. Typical group owned tractors will be survey out after only 3000 of the designed 10,000 operating hours as readily shown by the line-up of out-of-service tractors outside any Agriculture Development Project in Nigeria. Actually, it could easily be better for such services to be provided by non-farmers, as the idea is to enhance the contracting of these services instead of direct use. In this case, managing land would be a conflict of interest. Micro-finance projects could be critical in developing these family village enterprises that would reduce the overall labor requirements, allow the producers to plant crops earlier, and spend more time on mid-season activities that enhance yield or quality when that is important. The emphasis on individual ownership of support services would avoid all the cumbersome administrative and overhead costs normally associated with multi-party ownership and the need to partition costs among multiple owners that is difficult to sustain without external facilitation.

The USAID funded CARE administered REAP (Rural Enterprise & Agribusiness Project) in Zambia is an example of such efforts although limited to input and marketing, and not getting involved in other services such as contract tillage or grain mills that would have a greater impacted on drudgery relief. This project remained viable for several years after the initial funding ended, but eventually encountered financial problems mostly in maintaining the capital needed for cash purchase of produce after harvest.

Last Revised: 29 March 2010

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