Rural poor gain more from crop, income diversification

Science and Development Network
  • Researchers assessed factors that drive crop and income diversification of three African nations
  • They found that the poor in rural households gained more than the less poor
  • Address socio-economic vulnerabilities in rural households, an expert urges

By Charles Mkoka

Strategies implemented to enable smallholders to respond to climate change-related shocks are having more positive effects among the poor than the less poor, a study suggests.

In Sub-Saharan Africa smallholder farmers are the key actors in agricultural productivity and they account for 80 per cent of all farms in the region, according to the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa report. The effects of climate change—the change in global or regional climate patterns — are now adding to the many challenges already facing smallholders in the region.

According to the study, identifying factors that drive rural households to respond to climate change-related shocks could provide insights into whether current strategies reduce food insecurity and extreme poverty or improve standards of living in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Thus, researchers used nationally-representative household-level surveys collected in Malawi, Niger and Zambia from 2010 to 2015, merged them with climate change-related information and analysed factors that drive and impact growing different food crops — called crop diversification — or having different income sources.

“The results show that the impact of both crop and income diversification on households’ welfare is generally higher for the poorest while it decreases, and in some cases turns to be negative, moving toward the upper end of the income distribution in all three countries,” says the study published in the May issue of World Development.

In Zambia, the effect of a small increase in crop diversification decreases from 0.7 per cent among poor households to -0.3 per cent among those with high incomes, according to the study, with related trends for Niger and Malawi.

Nicholas Sitko, a co-author of the study, explains, “The three countries prioritise agricultural and livelihood diversification as strategies to enhance smallholders’ resilience to climate change. There is therefore demand for empirical evidence to guide their diversification policies.”

Sitko, who is the programme coordinator of the economic and policy analysis of climate change programme at the UN FAO, says that the three countries are particularly exposed to risks associated with climate change because of the high number of smallholders who rely on rain-fed agriculture for their livelihoods.

But the study identified some differences in the two strategies.

“The empirical results confirm that exposure to extreme dry events acts as a push factor for crop diversification in Malawi and Niger while the association is negative in Zambia,” says the study. “However, the exposure to the risk of extreme dry shocks is not a driver for any income diversification strategy in Niger and Malawi while it is positively related with income diversification in Zambia.”

Researchers attribute the findings to differences in household characteristics and institutional features. For example, in Malawi, the study identified average cultivated land size to be 0.75 hectare whereas those for Niger and Zambia were respectively almost five and two hectares.

“Analysing the impact of farmers’ choice is always a difficult task. This is because those who decide to adopt a certain agricultural practice or technology often make the choice based on a wide range of factors that are specific to the household and are difficult to measure,” Sitko explains.

Mweene Kambombi, a research assistant at Zambia Agriculture Research Institute, says that for diversification strategies to have a greater impact on reducing rural poverty, there is a need for “improving the enabling environment through multi-sectoral policies, strategies and programmes that address economic and social vulnerabilities faced by poor rural households.”

Abdulrazak Ibrahim, capacity development and agribusiness specialist at the Forum for Agriculture Research in Africa, commends the researchers for generating a new understanding of the impact of crop and income diversification on livelihoods.

“It represents a timely knowledge coming at a time when climate resilience and scramble for land in rural Africa are among the most important megatrends for transforming the continent,” he says, adding that related studies that focus on many African countries should be conducted to generate more evidence for the continent.

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