A new vision for agriculture
momagri, movement for a world agricultural organization, is a think tank chaired by Christian Pèes.
It brings together, managers from the agricultural world and important people from external perspectives,
such as health, development, strategy and defense. Its objective is to promote regulation
of agricultural markets by creating new evaluation tools, such as economic models and indicators,
and by drawing up proposals for an agricultural and international food policy.
Focus on issues

Tackling the employment challenge: Agriculture as central issue

by Bruno Losch,

Research Director in economics, Cirad

In developing countries, the population most affected by food insecurity mainly concerns rural and agricultural people. As we pointed out on several occasions1, this apparent paradox can be explained by insufficient agricultural incomes: For most farmers, farming is not sufficiently profitable. As a consequence, targeting agricultural employment would effectively fight poverty and food insecurity, and this through various channels. As Bruno Losch, head of research in economics at the French Agricultural Research Center for International Development (CIRAD), writes in an article published in the October 2012 issue of Perspective, which we highly recommend2, policies directed to agricultural employment would indeed have a beneficial effect extending far beyond agricultural activities. Because in Sub-Saharan Africa and other areas in the world, agriculture is a strategic economic sector for developing agricultural and non-agricultural activities and employment, be they upstream and downstream. In addition, as rural exodus––and thus a significant share of urban poverty––mainly results from rural and agricultural poverty, policies directed to promoting agricultural jobs would also ease the pressure on cities, and more globally lower social and political tensions. In fact, the issue of agricultural employment has consequences on many aspects of the economic, social and political stability of nations. While the problems vary in the world’s various industrialized countries, we have no choice but note that the agricultural employment issue is also crucial there, and this from a number of points of view. In France for instance, various estimates indicate that each job in agriculture generates four or five additional jobs in other sectors3. Furthermore, agricultural employment plays a significant role in terms of food security and independence, regional planning, rural development and environmental preservation. The low ratio of farmers in the workforce should remind us of the need for measures that promote agricultural employment and advance farming conditions.

momagri Editorial Board

Although Sub-Saharan African nations are heterogeneous, their current population is still predominantly rural (65 percent), with workers employed in agriculture (60 percent) and households engaged in farming (95 percent), albeit generally diversified. The rest of the working population is employed in non-farm informal activities (25 to 30 percent), which are mainly urban, and in the formal industrial and service sector (five to 10 percent at most).

Consequently, agricultural and rural development policies must be central in action priorities. Their failure would only hasten rural exodus, add more pressure on cities and increase local tensions, thereby giving rise to all types of crisis and political distorting practices (fundamentalism, insurrections, coups d’état).

Agriculture in the broad sense––including livestock, fisheries and forestry––is a strategic economic sector for developing activities and employment, whether farm or non-farm and upstream and downstream, and for managing natural resources and areas––a far more extensive role than supplying commodities and food, which has been the focus of attention since the 2008 agricultural price crisis, and has served to justify land grabbing.

Tackling the major determinants

To meet the massive challenge of employment, the first recommendation is to reinvest in development strategies that convey both a long-term vision and sectorial approaches. These strategies, which have been neglected since the 1980s, must be deemed as full fledged public goods and, as such, benefit from support for their progress (information systems, training, assistance for negotiation and decision-making). They must associate the various players involved in economic development––the private sector, local authorities, trade associations, the civil society as well as central and regional administrations.

These development strategies need to address the long-term structural issues––sustainable development policies, education, as well as health and production investment, which condition future adaptability. Then, they can be broken down in sectorial and regional action plans. For the agricultural sector and rural areas, the objective is to accompany structural change through the progressive diversification of activities. This diversification will only be possible in response to rural consumer demand, which makes it critical to first improve farmers’ incomes. Spawning such virtuous circle––which will also help to cut down poverty and thus increase food security––requires numerous well-known prerequisites (infrastructures, research, credit, insurance and assistance among others), but which are hard to achieve simultaneously and in all areas, especially in the economic and institutional context of most Sub-Saharan African nations.

This is why public action must make proactive choices, while giving free reign to private initiatives. To take on the employment challenge, the pragmatic approach consists in focusing on the major determinants that create leverage. The first priority is therefore strengthening family farming rather than large-scale business farming, since they employ and overwhelming majority of agricultural workers, represent the greatest potential for production and employment, and generate the bulk of rural incomes. Such a choice comes with specific requirements, namely managing tensions over land and water resources through infrastructure and appropriate institutional mechanisms (which stocks of resources and which management methods?), developing ecologically sustainable and economically viable technical systems (agro-ecology) adapted to needy farmers, and supporting a rational and job-creating intensification (which does not preclude a necessary reduction in demanding working conditions). Foreign private investment can be better directed towards activities that are upstream and downstream from production, where economic operators and capital are scarce.

The second priority concerns food crops. They benefit from large fast-growing markets at the regional and international levels; they can be easily processed locally and foster the diversification of activities and jobs; they involve all farmers, who produce them, at least partly, for their own consumption. At the same time, improved yields and a better access to national and regional markets (which imply clear commitments to regional integration) make it possible to lower risks for farmers, and unlock the endogenous potential for farm and non-farm diversification, including higher value-added output, when possible.

The third priority is the fact that such approach must be implemented in the framework of regional policies aimed at reinforcing the urban-rural connection through the promotion and development of service functions of small cities and rural towns, which are often overlooked in favor of large metropolitan areas. Focusing on regional development requires a better understanding of local dynamics and strengthening the participatory decision-making process. It also requires public investment and support for private investment in facilities and services that are essential to the development of small- and medium-sized businesses and the consolidation of the local economic system. It will then be possible to strengthen and renew social links, thus cut the risks of conflicts over resources.

In the absence of a rapid mobilization of local, national and international partners on clear priorities and the means required to conduct these policies in the long term, the risks of instability in Africa will continue to increase. Let’s not forget that in 2050, the population of Sub-Saharan Africa will likely exceed that of China by 600 million people, and be 2.5 times higher than that of Europe.

1 Please see momagri’s article “World hunger: There may be more than meets the eye”, http://www.momagri.org/UK/editorials/World-Hunger-There-may-be-more-than-meets-the-eye_746.html
2 The complete Bruno Losch article in the October 2012 issue of Perspective is available from the CIRAD website at: http://www.cirad.fr/en/publications-resources/science-for-all/(type)/perspective-policy-brief
3 Please see momagri’s article “In France, 18% of the worforce is employed by the agro-food sector”, http://www.momagri.org/UK/agriculture-s-key-figures/In-France-18%25-of-the-workforce-is-employed-by-the-agro-food-sector_1061.html
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Paris, 19 December 2018