Agriculture is centrally important to the West African economy, providing 30–50 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) in most countries, the major source of income and livelihoods for 70–80 per cent of the population, food supplies, and revenue from cash crop exports.
Globally, the commitment of donors and governments to meeting the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)has focused attentionon the rural economy, where some 70 per cent of the world’s poorest people live and work. Improving returns fromagriculture has been identified as key to reaching poverty reduction targets. Understandably, therefore, governments in West Africa, as elsewhere, are interested in seeing how agriculture might be “modernised” to meet the many demands made of it.
West Africa exhibits a diverse array of family farms, in terms of size, assets, market orientation, income, diversification of activities, reliance on migrants’ earnings and vulnerability to risk. Family farms in West Africa face a challenging future as local markets and food systems become increasingly globalised. This diversity of farming households and their differential ability to respond to market opportunities, invest in productive assets and meet their needs has led some observers to predict the end of the family farm. Those in favour of promoting investment in large-scale commercial agribusiness can always find examples of impoverished, subsistence-oriented families, unable to cope with the multiple challenges of prices, climate and risk. Those seeking to demonstrate the dynamism and viability of family farms can point to a different set of smallholders who have clearly demonstrated their ability to address new markets and adopt new technologies. Policy measures need to consider how best to address the very different needs and pathways associated with each kind of producer, given their distinct strengths and challenges (see Table 1).
This article comes from the IDS Bulletin 36.2 (2005) Is There a Future for Family Farming in West Africa?