The Enduring Intensification Dilemma of Africa's Rural Farmer
The African Green Revolution is at the heart of agricultural transformations across the continent. Over the last couple of decades, the African Green Revolution Forum and partner organizations have championed ambitious plans to change the course of agriculture on the African continent. They aim to "modernize" an otherwise subsistence dominated and inefficient farming sector.
Mechanization, adoption of high-yielding varieties (HYVs) of seeds, application of chemical fertilizer, irrigation schemes, commercialization and, recently, the application of digital tools are at the forefront of this agenda. In a nutshell, the intensification of agriculture — an increase of productivity per acre resulting from the adoption of HYVs, inorganic fertilizer and other agrochemicals aimed at controlling weeds and pests — is proposed as the way forward.
However, critics of such an approach argue this is far removed from the reality of rural Africa's food production practices. Others suggest that intensification is a neocolonialist approach that makes farmers in Africa dependent on agricultural production inputs from the West, and threatens the continent's food sovereignty. Interestingly, this debate takes a different turn when it comes to understanding the behaviors of African farmers. Our research in Ghana has found that smallholders face dilemmas in their choices within fragmented approaches to their growth.
Smallholder behaviors towards HYVs and complementary technologies in Ghana
Our research aimed to understand how to improve farmers' access to quality maize seeds for enhanced productivity in Ghana. We interviewed farmers to learn their perceptions and behaviors towards HYVs and complimentary agrochemicals. All of these farmers (110 in total) run smaller, rainfed farms of up to 2.8 acres, with farm labor being predominantly family members.
We found that only 47% of these farmers are willing to purchase the seeds at full cost. The rest will adopt them if they are free, reduced in cost, or if they can get seeds in exchange for something else. About 81% of farmers alluded that they may not adopt the use of improved seeds because they are expensive to purchase and require a lot of labor to cultivate.
Furthermore, only 8% of farmers use agrochemicals like pesticides and weedicides (herbicides), and only 24% use fertilizer. The farmers who use fertilizer are those with multiple income generation sources and can afford to use chemical fertilizer to some extent.
Almost all of those interviewed agreed that market availability for produce plays a crucial role in the decision to adopt improved planting technologies and farming practices. One farmer asked, "Why should I plant expensive seeds that would give me more yield when I do not have the market for my produce?" The decisions farmers make are crucial to understanding the potential for success or otherwise of the "modern smallholder."
What we learned from farmer choices
What can be perceived from these farmers' behavior is indifference in adopting low input agriculture production practices. Farmers may be excited about the prospect of agricultural intensification through improved seeds, but their behaviors towards them are complicated. Local context, farm practices that have been passed down through generations and other socioeconomic issues would not permit farmers to adopt intensification — at least not wholly.
The idea of using agrochemicals to control weeds and pests on farms is exciting and seems less laborious. Yet, the cost of purchasing these inputs could be overwhelming for many. This challenge leads farmers to adopt intensification and use it in conjunction with their current ecological experience and farming practices which results in lower outputs than when using either intensification or agroecological farm practices alone.
Also, the behaviors of farmers towards these inputs show that farmers are economic agents. Farmers will not fully adopt a technology that doesn't make economic sense to them. Irrespective of the investment made in terms of time, money and extension and capacity building training, farmers will continue to exhibit indifference towards modern inputs. They will only adopt less expensive technologies that save time and reduce farm labor efforts.
How to move forward with the adoption of modern inputs
Considering that the continent is struggling to produce enough food to feed itself, policymakers in the region must invest in the fundamentals. Governments and other stakeholders need to invest in assets such as land, machinery and irrigation to support farmers' use of other inputs. Considerable investment in adequate market infrastructure and communication networks that give farmers access to current crop price information is crucial in stimulating farmers' desire to adopt Green Revolution technologies.
Finally, and most importantly, the region must invest in knowledge mobilization and efficient agricultural extension services to disseminate research and development findings from field trials. Extension activities need to expand beyond the dissemination of practices to include the value propositions of these inputs. This should be tailored in a manner that incorporates farmers' views and behavior towards improved planting technologies. In other words, the approach towards design and dissemination of these technologies should be farmer-to-farmer led to increase the widespread adoption among rural farmers who are trying to decide which improved technologies to adopt for enhanced productivity.