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February 23, 2009

Traditional farming could propel millions out of poverty

by Harriet Lamb*

One-third of the world's population depends on small-scale agriculture for their livelihoods. Smallholders are the catalyst to a prosperous future.

Times are tough for people in the UK right now. But across the developing world, times are desperate for smallholders, caught between rising food and fuel prices and a credit crunch that sees orders falling and access to loans becoming harder than ever. Yet these smallholders, too often overlooked by companies and policymakers alike, could hold the key to helping solve the food crisis and tackle poverty.

Just 15 years ago, Rwanda was utterly devastated. They are now rebuilding their economy, with organised smallholders at its heart. Just 15 years ago, Maraba village was one of the country's poorest, their low-quality coffee was sold straight off the bushes for passing prices to passing middlemen.

Today, the Maraba farmers have organised themselves into a Fairtrade-certified cooperative, have four washing stations – the first stage in processing coffee – have trained the first generation of cuppers, or tasters, who are constantly improving quality, and are commanding record premiums for their prize-winning beans. They are roasting and selling their coffee all over Rwanda as well as exporting it through Union Handroasted to UK shop shelves.

These are the most innovative farmers I have ever met – constantly researching new ways how to improve productivity, such as making organic compost, or to add value, such as roasting at a village level using traditional techniques. And they have sparked an economic revival that sees Maraba now as among the more prosperous villages in Rwanda, as evidenced by the bustling bank and choice of hairdressing salons, while the farmers are now building and running a nursery school.

It is an economic revival that, with the right support, smallholders could lead worldwide. Some 450 million smallholder farming households cultivate two hectares or less, and with their families they make up a third of all humanity. Increasing their incomes will therefore be vital to improving the incomes of the poor. Indeed, because smallholders tend to spend more income on local goods and services, they could be the impetus that stimulates virtuous economic circles in local economies.

Organised groups of smallholders can also play a catalytic role in stimulating wider progress – on the environment and on social issues.

And smallholders hold the key to increasing food production. Small farms produce the bulk of many developing countries' food: up to 80% of Zambia's, for example. Much evidence points to their productivity – if given the right support.

That support is needed now more than ever. In Uganda, some tea-growers today spend more than 50% of income on food, up from 30% in the past. Some estimate the price of maize will rise by 27% over the next 10 years.

A member of Mabale Growers Tea Factory in western Uganda, Beatrice Kunihira, usually produces 300kg of tea a month, but she's been unable to afford fertiliser recently and is only producing roughly half as much. On top of this, price rises mean the family is spending double what it did last year on food. She says: "We can only afford eggs twice a year, at Easter or Christmas. We are in poverty. Sometimes we want to put on shoes but we can't afford them. Sometimes, we want to eat meat, but we can't afford it."

For too long, smallholder agriculture has been sidelined, with international aid to agriculture collapsing (from $7.6bn in 1980 to $3.9bn in 2006) and African governments typically spending only 4-5% of their national budgets on agriculture. That is why the Fairtrade Foundation is calling for smallholders to be put first in the strategies of governments, North and South, and in company's sourcing plans.

Fairtrade is helping smallholders through the current crisis, and it is building an architecture of hope – making an immediate difference to some seven million farmers, workers and their families while proving that trade can be run differently.

*Harriet Lamb is Executive Director of the Fairtrade Foundation

The Guardian

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