Farming is a dominant economic activity in West Africa: in most countries it serves as the main source of livelihood for over 70 percent of the population, accounts for between 30 percent to 50 percent of the gross national product, remains central to rural people’s income and food supply and in terms of size, ranges from small family, subsistence holdings to large-scale commercial enterprises. Ongoing debates about the prospects of ensuring food security in the region call public attention to innovative measures necessary for raising agricultural productivity.
Those who consider small scale farms as backward, isolated, and unable to access credit to invest toward increasing productivity want a major transformation of the agricultural sector by way of establishing modern, forward looking, market oriented big farms that are capable of producing for national, regional, and international consumption. Along this line, a number of governments in the region are opting for policies to promote more secure land tenure for agricultural entrepreneurs in rural areas and most have been guaranteed preferential access to key inputs including interest free loans and physical infra-structures.
On the other hand, it has been demonstrated that family farms can adapt to new technologies, and create a diversity of activities to limit risk and reduce environmental vulnerabilities: this has been abundantly demonstrated via the dynamism of cocoa-growing family farms in Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire, and the cotton-growing areas of Mali and Niger. In addition, the livestock sector has managed to survive and to continue supplying the regional meat markets, in spite of the setbacks caused by several years of drought across the region. Quite a few researchers say that family farms have shown considerable capacity to innovate, diversify, and remain competitive, in the face of threats posed by international markets. As such, it is held that they should be central to official rural poverty reduction measures.
In this context of polarized views and projections about farming, we believe that all West African governments wanting to embark on large scale agriculture must carefully consider the economic, political and social consequences of such a policy. Certainly, in many circumstances, the redistribution of land in favor of commercial agriculture has frequently conflicted with overarching national policies of promoting democracy, social justice, and decentralization.
A good and well considered agricultural policy must be one that does not leave indigenous farmers landless, and its overall purpose must be to advance rural development. National dialogue on this matter must also seek to encourage land tenure reform, and improve access to equipment and credit for small scale farmers.