Synthesis Report II: The Changing Face of African Farmland in an Era of Rural Transformation


September 26, 2019 - Author: T. S. Jayne, Milu Muyanga, Ayala Wineman, Hosaena Ghebru, Caleb Stevens, Mercedes Stickler, Antony Chapoto, Ward Anseeuw, David Nyange, and Divan Van der Westhuisen


Mounting evidence suggests that sub-Saharan Africa has undergone profound rural transformation since the early 2000s, though progress has been highly uneven across countries. Conventional views of African agriculture are in many respects becoming obsolete. Our review highlights the evidence of farm-level transformation in the region, identifies the key sources of dynamism in the sector, and proposes an updated typology of farms that reflects the evolving nature of African agriculture. We underscore the rising importance of an entrepreneurial class of African commercialized medium-scale farmers, and examine the causes and consequences of this phenomenon.

Key Findings

The size distributions of farms in many African countries are rapidly changing. In most of the countries for which national rural household surveys exist, and particularly those with substantial potential for cropland expansion, it is no longer true that the vast majority of farmland in Africa is under small-scale cultivation. The national shares of area under cultivation, the value of production, and marketed crop output on farms under five hectares has been declining over time, with corresponding increases in shares among medium- and large-scale farms. Medium-scale farms (defined here as farm holdings between 5 and 100 hectares) account for a rising share of total farmland, especially in the 5- to 25-hectare range where the number of these farms is growing especially rapidly. Medium-scale farms control roughly 20 percent of total farmland in Kenya, 32 percent in Ghana, 39 percent in Tanzania, and more than 50 percent in Zambia. Medium-scale farmers are a diverse group, reflecting several distinct pathways into medium-scale farming, including (1) the successful expansion of small-scale farms into medium-scale farms, generally in the 5- to 25-hectare range, through new land acquisition made possible because of increasingly active land markets; (2) the diversification into farming by rural nonfarm businesspeople and wage earners; and (3) land acquisitions by urban-based professionals, retirees, and rural elites. The relative importance of these pathways varies by country according to differences in potentially available cropland, the economic potential of that land, the ease of acquiring land through customary and statutory tenure systems, and the degree of farm scale bias of agricultural policies. The rapid development of land rental, purchase, and long-term lease markets has encouraged the growth of each of these pathways.

This trend is not happening everywhere. In densely populated countries such as Kenya, Malawi, Uganda, and Rwanda, land scarcity and high land values are impeding the pace of medium-scale farm acquisitions, and the share of land under medium-scale farms is growing slowly if at all. However, as we establish in Section 2, the population-based Living Standards Measurement Survey (LSMS)-type data utilized in this study may underrepresent medium- and large-scale farm holdings, based on comparisons of larger farm censuses and LSMS data from the same year. Therefore, the share of cultivated land, farm production, and marketed output accounted for by medium-scale farms as reported in this review most likely are underestimated.



Tags: agrifood system transformation, cross-country, cross-cutting outreach contributions, fsg publications, fsp publications, input use and market development, land

Related Topic Areas

Cross-country, C4a

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