17 February 2017

After pockets, corridors,... what next?

For decades, addressing the food issue in poor countries has been dominated by the priority given to producing more food. This strategy has been largely resting on the apparently logical view that producing more food would solve the food issue. The problem is that there is no such thing as “one“ food issue. There are several dimensions to the problem. Let’s just look at three of them for now.

The first of these aspects is, and almost everyone is aware of it, that there is a need to ensure availability of sufficient food worldwide. For the time being, this condition is respected as there is globally, more food available than what is required to feed every individual on earth [read].

The second aspect is much less known. In today’s world, even though there is enough food around and much is wasted, there are hundreds of millions of people who do not eat sufficiently [read]. That means that producing enough is not enough to feed everyone. There is also a need to make sure that everyone has the capacity to have access to all the food they require, either by producing it or by earning the money required to buy sufficient food for them and their family.

The third aspect is even less known and sometimes voluntarily negated. This is the fact that food production needs to be made sustainable. And facts show that our production system is degrading (loss of biodiversity, soil degradation, diminishing water resources) [read] and contributes to climate change [read], while all these consequences challenge future food production.

Every decade or so a “new approach” is proposed for solving the food issue that is in fact always based on the same old recipes. It is heralded as being supposed to solve the food problem once and for all, and it concentrates almost everybody’s (government, partners, NGOs and private sector) resources. The basic principle on which these different avatars of the recipe rely is first and foremost to concentrate on “potential” and “easy” areas. “Potential” means where there is good soil, water (good rain or irrigation possibilities), and “easy” means easy access (roads, rivers or canals -  if they are not there yet, they can be constructed) to bring to the area all the inputs required (fertiliser, improved seeds, machinery, pesticides…) and take out surplus production.

Back in the 80s in hilly Nepal, this translated into the ”pocket approach” which meant concentrating all resources available to the government and its partners (extension workers, credit, sometimes marketing facilities) to promote food production in some easy and potential areas, the “pockets”. This definitely meant some increase of production in places where the approach was applied, but the mass of people in surrounding “non potential” and “difficult” areas were left to themselves, and their access to food was not improved, while, in the “pockets”, acidification of fertilised soils was taking place on a large scale. Overall the situation did not improve. In fact, it even deteriorated for most of the rural population. Unfortunately, whatever lessons were learned from this experience and others similar attempts made during that decade, if any, were quickly forgotten…

Nowadays, in Africa in particular, the new fashion is for “corridors”. The recipe remains basically the same: link farmers to the market through new infrastructure and provide them with the means to practice a “modern” agriculture.

In 2016, the International Science and Partnership Council (ISPC) of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) commissioned the European Center for Development Policy Management (ECDPM) to collate and synthesize existing information and experiences on development corridors, growth clusters, and similar initiatives in Africa in order to draw implications on agricultural research. And what ECDPM found is no great surprise…

After the 2007-2008 food crisis, there was a renewed interest in agriculture and food production. As a result, in the words of the authors of the report, “there has been a growing investment by both public and private sector in integrated development corridors and other spatial development initiatives where coordinated investments in transport infrastructure, power, communications and markets are expected to create conditions to unleash Africa’s undoubted agricultural potential”. Yara, the biggest fertiliser company was heavily involved in lobbying in favour of an approach that could help it boost its business in Africa.

The analysis of the impact of these initiatives shows very mixed results as, depending on circumstances, “smallholders may lose their land to investors, they may suffer from land competition from migration of people from other areas to the corridors and in some situations they may enable smallholders to capture the benefits of market access. Competition with large commercial farms may render smallholder farming for commodity crops such as maize uncompetitive – however smallholders may move into more specialized markets for tree crops, vegetables, etc. and thus benefit from the new development”. To this should however be added: (i) that it takes time, knowledge and investment to move to these specialised markets, a reality which limits considerably the number of smallhoders who actually adapt to new conditions created by corridors and (ii) that smallholder farmers who live outside of these corridors do not, of course, capture any benefit from them and may even suffer from their competition.

The authors of the study conclude by writing that “a two tier farming system might emerge with i) increased prosperity for farmers practicing modern agriculture and integrated with markets in areas served by corridors, and ii) further marginalization of subsistence farmers in the hinterlands who could not benefit from infrastructure developments. In many cases, the future of subsistence smallholders in hinterland areas would be very precarious and they would be faced with little alternative other than to abandon agriculture and move to urban areas or seek employment as workers on farms in more favored areas”.

In other words and not surprisingly, the same approach gives the same unsatisfactory results today as thirty years ago! Yet, you can bet that, those who make profits from constructing roads, irrigation schemes and who sell agricultural inputs will always lobby and push for a new avatar of this approach to be implemented, rather than searching for better and more inclusive alternatives - which exist - that can combine production, hunger eradication and sustainability.

So after pockets, corridors, what will be the next panacea emerging in the years to come?


To know more:

  1. -Byiers B. et al., Agricultural Growth Corridors Mapping potential research gaps on impact, implementation and institutions, ECDPM/ISPC/CGIAR, 2016

Earlier articles on related to the topic:

  1. -The World Economic Forum’s “New Vision for Agriculture” is moving ahead on the ground…, 2017

  2. -AfDB’s new agricultural strategy: for a so-called “modern” agriculture that will be neither sustainable nor inclusive and will only benefit a minority, 2016

  3. -Myths on hunger debunked, 2015

  4. -Seven principles for ending hunger sustainably, 2013

  5. -Food security: definition and drivers, 2013


Last update:    February 2017

For your comments and reactions: