Smallholders as key actors for food security


Smallholders as key actors for food security

Smallholder farmer households produce 50 to 80 per cent of the world’s food and play a key role in achieving SDG2 on Zero Hunger. Yet, they are among the poorest and most food insecure people in the global South. The case elaborates on the ways in which smallholder agriculture can contribute to improved food and nutrition security for poor farmers in their rural contexts.

Did you know? Food security is a situation wherein all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.

This case is based on a full paper (see link at the bottom of this page) in a series of articles about NWO-WOTRO's Food and Business Research programme. It represents insights from nineteen interdisciplinary research projects funded by NWO-WOTRO carried out in nineteen countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and Vietnam between 2014 and 2019. All projects brought together farmers, researchers, practitioners and business stakeholders.

FAO defines smallholders as 'those who work between less than 1 ha up to 10 ha, mainly using family labour, and using part of the production for household consumption'. The synthesis shows, however, that smallholders differ in socioeconomic status, which influences their ability and decisions to adopt research innovations.

Picture: Shutterstock | James Karuga

Food availability

This refers to the presence of enough food through agricultural production, imports and/or food aid. Projects explored options to increase farm productivity through more resilient crop varieties, better disease and pest management, and improving soil health. A project in northern Uganda, for instance, used participatory methods to select high-yielding and drought-tolerant cassava varieties. To stop the fast spread of diseases it simultaneously taught farmers how to identify common cassava diseases and establish multiplication sites for producing disease-free planting material. Research in Burundi and Uganda led to the development of fertilisers adapted to local soil qualities to replace the generic fertilisers that farmers used. Where farmers in both projects adopted the innovations, yields increased considerably.

The synthesis confirmed that success factors for research uptake, include:

  • involving smallholders in research design and knowledge co-creation
  • building on farmers’ local and indigenous knowledge
  • prospects for business opportunities for smallholders


Picture: Andrea VosFemale laborers picking palmfruit_Kwaebibirem

This food security dimension is defined as the safety and quality of food, which determines households’ nutritional status. Findings from projects that researched nutritious indigenous and neglected foods (e.g. spider plant in Benin, fermented dairy in Zambia and leafy vegetables in Kenya) are discussed in another synthesis article. A project with tree-crop farmers growing cocoa and oil palm (Ghana) and macadamia nuts and avocado (South Africa) found that market-oriented production compromised their dietary diversity as farmers changed to less time-consuming and status foods that were less nutritional than their traditional diets.

The synthesis thus showed that:

  • agricultural intensification and increasing market orientation can adversely affect FNS
  • indigenous foods carry great potential for improving diets among rural and urban consumers


The 2020 corona pandemic makes painfully clear how vital it is that FNS is guaranteed over time. People should not lose access to adequate food due to sudden shocks and stresses. Projects related this stability dimension of FNS to smallholders’ land rights (specifically those of women), or farm- and land-management strategies such as agroforestry, to improve long-term tenure, environmental and food security.

The synthesis confirmed that:

  • projects that considered different dimensions of smallholder resilience contributed more strongly to sustainable improvements in food access and availability
  • investments in agriculture-based food security require tenure security to be sustainable

Key lessons

Smallholders are highly diverse, innovative and resilient. However, many of them suffer from food insecurity due to structural challenges and vulnerability to external shocks like market disruptions or climatic change. Besides the findings on the four FNS dimensions, the synthesis showed that:

  1. Interventions aiming to improve smallholders’ productivity, market performance and FNS should acknowledge smallholder heterogeneity regarding gender, age, land size, assets and off-farm income.
  2. Introducing improved varieties, farming practices and technologies that increase yield, prevent crop diseases and/or enhance soil fertility provide substantial opportunities for greater food availability. Improving smallholders’ integration into markets and value chains, however, proved a harder nut to crack.
  3. Active farmer engagement in project design, knowledge (co-)creation and project implementation supports the development of practical and relevant solutions and enhances research uptake by smallholders. In several cases, active engagement triggered farmers to share their insights with neighbouring communities, thus reinforcing a project’s potential impact.
  4. Addressing structural constraints to smallholders’ capacities for strategic action can help improve market access and FNS. Priorities are secure land rights, supportive policies (trade laws, climate change policies) and institutional support (e.g. extension services and access to credit).
  5. Where farmers succeeded to access markets and improve their productivity, the extra income did not automatically result in improved FNS in the short term. However, spending the extra income on children’s education or setting up a business may positively affect FNS in the mid and long term. Further study of the relationship between income and FNS is highly recommended.

Picture: Kwabena AsubontengParticipatory mapping in the Kade region

A way forward

Many national and international policies target smallholders to alleviate rural poverty and improve food security. Differences among smallholders have significant implications for how donors, governments and development agencies should approach them. Moreover, FNS is multi-dimensional and therefore requires an integrated approach. Combining high-yielding crop varieties with cost-efficient farmer-led irrigation, while working on improved tenure security and inclusive value chains, might be one such integrated approach. We recommend that any such approach is rigorously monitored on process and results to enable adaptive programming and learning.

Where farmers succeeded to access markets and improve their productivity, the extra income did not automatically result in improved FNS in the short term

The synthesis study showed that promising answers can be found in locally developed and tested solutions. Yet it also makes clear that partnerships and reliable political support are needed to achieve impact beyond the local level. The Covid-19 crisis, which emerged after the reviewed projects were finalised, generates many new and extremely urgent questions about FNS worldwide.

We call on decision-makers to use the current crisis as an opportunity to design agricultural development and food security policies that guarantee long-term support to smallholders. Given their poverty, they may be disproportionately affected by this crisis, while their importance as local food producers is multiplied.

Picture: Shutterstock | Sun_Shine

Authors: Dr David Betge, Dr Ellen Lammers, Dr Mirjam Ros-Tonen, Daniëlle de Winter

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