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Market Systems
Market Systems

Population Growth Requires Looking Beyond Farming to Reduce Rural Poverty

Mon, July 10, 2017
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Dan White
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This post is the second in a Microlinks-Agrilinks collaboration series for "Markets Month," which will explore market systems trends throughout the month of July. Read the first post here.

In June, I joined nearly a hundred USAID and implementing partner thought leaders at the Market Systems Global Learning and Evidence Exchange in Dakar, Senegal.

In the first session on agricultural transformations, Jim Oehmke, Senior Food Security and Nutrition Advisor at the Bureau for Food Security, outlined several longer range trends in the global food system. Jim pointed out that we are at an inflection point for population growth on the African continent. The population has tripled from 400 million to 1.2 billion in the past 37 years, and the continent is adding 2.5 million people per month. Combined with declining yields, this population explosion will have profound implications for how we think about rural development in the coming decades. It is one of the key reasons why we have to look beyond just farming as the primary pathway out of poverty for today and tomorrow’s youth.

This is mostly because of land, a finite and diminishing resource. Landholdings for smallholders across the sub-continent are still mostly allocated inter-generationally, either father-to-son or allocated to new generations at a community level. Either in a family or village, this leaves most young people with minor fractions of their parents’ acreage. For younger sons or those with many brothers, this practice often leads to a viable homestead of two or three hectares for one generation becoming unprofitable when divided three or more times for the next generation. Daughters are often even worse off, with many lacking claims to any land whatsoever.

In a few land-abundant countries, there is still underutilized land available, though this is concentrated in a small number of states. But in land-constrained countries, which include five of the 12 Feed the Future target countries in Africa, younger generations face a grim reality in which the land they could use for homestead or commercial agriculture is vanishing rapidly. Uganda, one such land-constrained country, has seen average landholding size decline from 3.3Ha in 1963 to 0.9Ha in 2006.

In this context, it is no surprise that progress out of poverty is precarious and depends on many factors beyond just better yields and crop sales. As previous research under the USAID Leveraging Economic Opportunities activity has shown, investments in agricultural value chains must be complemented with expansion of other risk mitigation strategies, including social or crop insurance. Additionally, bolstering other income sources that have different risk profiles than agriculture, including non-farm rural wage labor, is key. Finally, particularly where there are large disparities in population across countries and borders, safe and fair migration to ensure land can be used as productively as possible. This is what the evolution from value chains to inclusive market systems thinking is about: expanding our poverty alleviation toolkit to ensure incomes and livelihoods can continue to improve even as land continues to vanish for today’s youth.

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Daniel White is the Technical Director for Agriculture at ACDI/VOCA, where he contributes to the scaling research stream under the Leveraging Economic Opportunities (LEO) MOBIS task order. With more than 10 years of experience in private sector horticulture and donor-funded agricultural development projects, White has managed and designed projects on agricultural productivity, training and behavior change, and research and learning in Iraq, Lebanon, Angola, Mozambique, Zambia, Tanzania, and Indonesia. He has focused particularly on the interplay between agronomic, economic, and social determinants of agricultural production and exchange practices.

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