Africa is typically portrayed as a lost cause; a place of desperation and poverty. It appears however that this is far from the truth, despite the appalling numbers threatened malnourishment, AIDS or civil war and oppression.
According to the director of the International Institute for Environment and Development, Camilla Toulmin, sustainable agriculture is booming on smallholdings in West Africa and harvest are plentiful.
"Family farms have been absolutely central to the continued growth of the agricultural sector in west Africa...In all but a few crops, family farms have been at the heart of driving the expansion in production."
Successful small farms are run by anything from two people to extended families of up to 80. Toulmin is fighting the preconception that smallholder farms are backward and unresponsive to market demands, while modern, large-scale farms are beacons of efficiency. "This is a false dichotomy she says. "Many large-scale farms go bust in very short periods of time."
Toulmin says small farmers are coming under increasing pressure from companies that control both the purchase of their produce and supply of their raw materials. They also face biased international markets in which developed world farmers benefit from trade-distorting subsidies amounting to $330 billion. In the US alone, subsidies under the Farm Bill amount to between $15 billion and $20 billion per year - more than the value of Africa's entire annual agricultural exports.
According to Klaus von Grebmer of the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, removal of these subsidies could increase Africa's agricultural income by more than 5%.
New Scientist 17 July 2004