Smallholder farms: The devil in small farm sizes

Africa smallholder farming by Joseph Wambugu
Aerial view of Gatero farms (my rural home). Google Earth image by Joseph W.

Small farm sizes is the worst problem of smallholder farming

Does the size of land really matter for small scale farmers? A few days ago, I had a conversation with a colleague on how to demystify the potential of our motherland, Africa.

We dived into analyzing the reality that 60% of the world’s uncultivated land is in Africa. How accurate is this estimation? Is it that this land is completely uncultivated or somehow underutilized? Where is this land located in Kenya for instance? We exchanged a lot of ideas while trying to answer these questions. We both learned a lot from each other.

Most interestingly, we unearthed a reality that is rarely spoken about regarding Africa’s uncultivated land. Did you know that close to 8% of Africa’s arable land could be occupied with live fences?
In my rural home, it appears to me that the average size of household land is 1 hectare or slightly less. FOA estimates it at 0.5 ha for Kenya on average. To mark land boundaries, every household usually plants a live fence around their farm.
In most cases, trees or shrubs are used as a live fence. If not regularly trimmed, live fences grow wild and can occupy a space of up to 2 meters of width. 

Smallholder farms surrounded with live fence: Internet photo 

Mathematically, if a 5 hectares piece of land is subdivided into 5 portions of 1 hectare each which are surrounded by a live fence, 0.078 hectares (7.8% of 5 ha) would be occupied with the living fence.
If we extrapolate this percentage to Kenya’s 6 million hectares of arable land, you will realize that 468,000 Ha of the arable land could be occupied with live fences. As land subdivision continues to rise, the loss of land could become more significant as days go by.
Do you still think smallholder farming will be the game-changer in the economies of Africa? Food for thought.

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  1. Good morning, how are you? I am Brazilian and I am looking for new followers for my blog. New friends are also welcome.

  2. Finally I've gotten to read. Brilliant expert observation there! My question: per acre, the land lost to live fence would look negligible, n bcoz we cannot have our pieces of land not fenced, shouldn't the focus be on increasing productivity for the rest of the land? If we increase the yield, won't we compensate for the land 'lost' to the live fence.
    2. The point about the limitations of smallholder farming is sinking, but what is th solution because we cannot all become large scale farmers? Most people may continue relying on their 1 acre, 2 acre, 3 acre pieces of land.

    1. Thanks Jonnah for being an ardent reader and contributor.
      I get your concerns in the two points above.

      1. The "negligible" loss per hectare leads to a cumulative loss of 468k hectares (1.1M acres) countrywide. I find this very significant in a country where land is increasingly becoming a rare resource.
      On increasing productivity, that's a good suggestion, and its a prayer for all farmers.
      However, small farms create a complexity that makes it hard to form stable and sustainable supply and value chains.

      2. Smallholder farming will disappear one day, but not soon. Either naturally following rural-urban migrations or strategically where the government will relocate people.
      Unfortunately, you will need to be alive for the next 200 years to witness this.

  3. Another way of thinking about forestation and tree cover, the live fences contribute to the green we see in those areas. On small scale farmers this might not end even though 200 years, we will have to find a way of making it profitable and sustainable


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