Synthesis Documents

Plantations, Contract Farming and Commercial Farming Areas in Africa: A Comparative Review, by Rebecca Smalley, Future Agricultures, 2013

    There is uncertainty surrounding the potential impacts of commercial agricultural developments that are being proposed for sub-Saharan Africa by domestic governments and foreign investors. To inform the debate, this study assesses the historical experience of three farming models that have figured in recent investments in sub-Saharan Africa: plantations, contract farming and commercial farming areas. It concentrates on findings in existing literature on the involvement of, and effects on, rural societies in and around the area where the schemes were located. It looks mainly at sub-Saharan Africa but also considers case studies from Latin America and Asia.

    Specifically, documented impacts of the farming models are reviewed in five main areas: impacts related to labour and contract conditions; impacts on rural structures and other local impacts; impacts within the household; impacts on food security; and macro-economic impacts.

    Summary of results
    Detailed findings on plantations, contract farming and commercial farms are provided in the report. Cross-cutting findings and implications assummarised in the study are provided below:

    The review suggests six determining factors that most strongly affect the outcome of schemes across all three farming models — plantations, contract farming and large-scale commercial farms (as a proxy for commercial
    farming areas). They are:
    1. The terms of contracting or employment.
    2. The behaviour of the employer.
    3. Crop characteristics and farming practices.
    4. Legal and policy institutions.
    5. The local context.
    6. Migrant employment.

    This leads to some concluding observations. The first is that although the record of plantation firms as employers has been criticised, the wages and conditions for workers can be better, or perhaps less bad, on foreign-owned plantations than on large farms and smallholdings. This should be borne in mind as we search for farming models that can benefit the rural poor. Before accepting the argument that contract farming, for instance, can reducabour, we should consider the wages and conditions that those hired labourers will face, as well as other dynamics that affect local labour patterns and entry barriers to participation.

    The second observation is that large-scale agricultural schemes in developing countries can affect women in many ways, good and bad. This deserves careful study, not only because women have proved to be especially vulnerable to a range of negative consequences from large-scale agriculture, but also because the gender-related changes that occur within rural households lead, in turn, to changes in agricultural production and patterns of labour at the local level. ‘Women’ are presented as a fairly homogeneous category in this paper, but there will be differences among women that influence how they participate and are affected by large-scaleagricultural schemes, such as class, education, ethnicity and marital status.

    The final theme to emerge is the instability of plantations, contract farming schemes and commercial farms, and a fluidity in related rural livelihoods. Large-scale agricultural developments have proved vulnerable to competing land claims, internal financial and management pressures, external events and political opposition. Planners and researchers should consider the consequences of possible collapse or withdrawal for the farmers and farmworkers affected, as well as other local actors such as exposed lending banks, so as to to predict and control the outcomes of commercial agricultural schemes. Participants in contract farming schemes may exit while still under contract; farmers’ organisations may evolve into competitive rivals; migrant workers may return to semi-subsistence farming. There are multiple interest
    groups in the rural landscape and agrarian change is not necessarily unilinear or irreversible.

    When considering the possible impacts of future commercial investments, we need to think beyond simple models of dualistic African agricultural sectors, polarised into large-scale enterprises and smallholdings, and consider a diversity of social relations that complicates the two-tier or three-tier class differentiation that is commonly reported in the literature as an outcome of development.