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November-December 2011

Vol. 36, No. 6


Africa: Agricultural labor, livelihoods

In most African countries, agriculture supports the survival and well-being of up to 70 percent of the population. Since the food crisis of 2008, international attention has shifted toward reinvestment in agriculture with a particular focus on Africa. While this reinvestment is important, it is critical to get the investment model right because so many livelihoods are dependent on it. There is little development in industry and other sectors to employ such a large percentage of people if agriculture was no longer possible for them. This fifth article in our series on African agriculture and food security takes a look at agriculture's role in creating jobs and fair labor conditions.

Previous articles:
Africa: Economics of agriculture, food security, March-April 2011
Africa: Agricultural technology and food security, May-June 2011
Africa: Food security, land use, July-August 2011
Africa: Agriculture and climate change, September-October 2011

With special emphasis on consumer campaigns during the fall when people in the United States purchase Halloween and holiday candy, Green America and other organizations including those represented in the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility are again pressuring Hershey to put an end to child labor on cocoa farms in West Africa. Hershey continues to lag behind its competitors in tracing its supply chains and continues to source cocoa from farms in West Africa where hundreds of thousands of enslaved children continue to work long, grueling hours.

A report commissioned by the U.S. Department of Labor recommends third party certification as the most effective way to prevent child labor, human trafficking, and forced labor in cocoa production. Hershey's competitors, Mars and Nestlé, have committed to begin using third party certification while others, like Green & Black's and Ben & Jerry's, have moved their entire cocoa supply chain to Fair Trade. The Hershey Company, however, refuses to adopt third party certification for any of its name-branded products, or to make any of its line fair trade.

While the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) touts the importance of improving supply chains for Africa's agricultural development, the Hershey story highlights some of underlying ways in which unchecked supply chains could fail African small holder farmers on labor standards. As the reinvestment goes forward with USAID encouraging more transnational corporations to become involved, Olivier De Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, warns that this process should be watched closely.

Access to markets is vital to improving livelihoods for small scale farmers in Africa, and contract farming has been presented as a solution to benefit both the farmers as sellers and the firms as buyers. But De Schutter points out that contract farming rarely encourages farmers to begin any value added activity like packaging and processing or marketing their own produce. In simply producing raw products, many small holder farmers become locked into accepting prices set by the buyers with whom they have a contract. The price offered may or may not reflect the costs of inputs like seeds and fertilizers. But through corporate consolidation and global concentration there are fewer buyers, and therefore all the power in the price setting process rests with buyer and not the seller. If the price is set such that the small holder farmer barely breaks even, no real opportunities are provided for farmers to climb out of poverty.

In his report De Schutter emphasizes that there is little attention paid to the rise in contract farming arrangements. "Under these arrangements, farmers commit their output to processing or marketing firms at predetermined prices that, more often than not, do not reflect the cost of production." He goes on to explore a number of business models that might better serve small holder farmers so they can realize their right to food, such as farmer-controlled enterprises, joint ventures or direct-to-consumer food marketing.

De Schutter recommends several policy changes that government can implement to protect workers from exploitation. For example, governments could "encourage preferential sourcing from small-scale farmers through fiscal incentives by making access to public procurement schemes conditional on bidders' compliance with certain sourcing requirements." Also, governments could "ensure that the degree of competition among traders is sufficient to prevent farmers from being locked into unequal relationships with a particular trader" when alternative buyers are absent for that particular crop. Additionally, governments could "monitor labor conditions in contract farming and ensure that the expansion of such farming does not lead to the overexploitation of cheap family labor or to indirect downward pressure on the labor rights of agricultural workers." (De Schutter, 2011, p. 20)

As one of the largest source of employment, African agriculture faces several challenges. Though women play a central role in agricultural production, growing as much as 80 percent of staple foods, it is the men who are the primary decision makers. In many communities diseases like malaria, tuberculosis, HIV and AIDS keep otherwise able-bodied workers (both the ill and the caregivers) out of the fields to plant and harvest. This is a circular problem because those who are ill often need good nutrition, but are unable to produce the food themselves. This is one of the major reasons that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation began to become involved in agricultural reinvestment – but as we have seen the type of reinvestment is important to its success in addressing food insecurity.

In Africa, like in Latin America and other places, land is often passed down through generations guaranteeing that already small parcels of land become even smaller. This places pressure on the land itself because farmers need every square inch of the land to produce – even when the land itself might need a break from planting to rest and regenerate. Howard Buffett, the U.S. philanthropist, photographer, farmer and eldest son of billionaire investor Warren Buffett, speaking at the 2012 World Food Prize addressed this key issue for the African small holder farmer. Buffett commented on the kind of reinvestment now needed to help improve livelihoods in rural Africa saying that one "cannot correct low soil fertility by piling on chemical-based fertilizers. Even if you could, there are over 500 million small-scale farmers in Africa that … cannot access them and cannot afford them…"

Buffett pointed to the fact that "one-size never fits all" in terms of finding solutions to improve African agriculture. Speaking to other donors and foundations he remarked: "Saying you're interested in helping small-scale farmers only counts if the results transform their lives. The rhetoric has been strong, the results have been few." As a way forward Buffett held up the findings of the International Assessment on Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) report (see NewsNotes, March-April 2009 and May-June 2011), stating that a green revolution is not the answer. Although Buffett is a conventional farmer himself, he advocates for new thinking around agriculture in Africa, emphasizing the agricultural inputs that are free to farmers (like pollinators and beneficial nematodes).

Buffett hints that the Rodale Institute may be one place to look. The Rodale Institute is a nonprofit dedicated to pioneering organic farming; for over 60 years it has researched the best practices of organic agriculture sharing their findings with farmers and scientists throughout the world. In early October the Rodale Institute released the findings of its 30-year Farming System Trial showing that in terms of productivity, drought tolerance, building soil quality, using less energy with less pollution, and most importantly, yielding higher profits for farmers, organic farming outperforms conventional industrial farming. These findings are corroborated by a study carried out by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food which revealed that organic farms create 30 percent more jobs per hectare than nonorganic, since more of the money in organic farming goes into paying local people rather than paying for farm inputs.

Improving the productivity and the economic returns of agriculture can have immediate effects on improving livelihoods and alleviating poverty and hunger, but farmers must not only keep their farms productive, they also must be offered a fair price for their labor. Market access is important, but the quality of the exchange must be watched closely. As De Schutter warns, "Entering into a contract is a private choice, but how much choice do farmers really have if their only access to markets is via a single dominant buyer? And how much benefit can this arrangement bring the farmer if the buyer can dictate the terms of that contract? If they are not careful, farmers end up as disempowered laborers on their own land."

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