Why it’s beneficial to organise smallholder farmers into groups

Why it’s beneficial to organise smallholder farmers into groups

The role of smallholder farmers has come under the spotlight in South Africa as the country navigates the tricky process of land reform. Smallholder farming is billed as the main avenue through which emerging black farmers are likely to grow their share of the country’s agricultural economic activity.

But South Africa’s smallholder farmers face major obstacles. Most of these originate from a lack of financial muscle, knowledge and networks. There has been growing evidence from across the African continent that organising smallholder farmers into groups helps them overcome some of these challenges. Examples include farmer groups among vegetable growers in Freetown, Sierra Leone, frankincense cooperatives in Tigray, Ethiopia and potato farmer groups in Malawi, which have boosted poor farmers’ success by sharing costs and facilitating access to relevant, contextual information.

Our study adds to this body of evidence. It looked at fertiliser use trends among South African smallholder farmers who were organised into groups versus those who were not.

We found that smallholder farmers in South Africa use fewer fertilisers than they should. This is partly because they don’t know which fertilisers suit their specific soils. But more importantly they lack the resources to buy and transport the fertilisers to their farming areas, which are often far from major centres on impassable roads.

Our findings suggest that organising farmers into groups can help to tackle these issues, modernise farming and improve smallholders’ incomes.

But not all smallholder farmer groups work well. In South Africa many are consumed by leadership tensions, corruption and toxic relations and become dysfunctional. It is critical to ensure that smallholder farming groups are run democratically and by the farmers themselves, with less interference from outsiders.

More positives than negatives

In South Africa many farmer groups have been formed because government, NGOs and other rural development agencies prefer to work with groups instead of individual farming households. This makes it easier to reach and support more people at the same time.

But many problems have been reported in these groups. Some of the challenges include infighting among the group members, and faults with group leadership or management.