Radical Ecological Democracy

Searching for alternatives to unsustainable and inequitable model of ‘development’


Looking Beyond Entrepreneurial Illusions to End Africa’s Food Crisis

Terry Leahy

Over the last fifteen years, I have focussed my research on food security projects in the rural areas of Southern and Eastern Africa, in countries previously colonized by Britain. I became aware of the situation there through contact with my African postgraduate students, many of whom have been agricultural officers dealing with village issues. On the ground I have spent months at a time in rural villages, staying with local people and visiting agricultural sites. I have engaged with agricultural officers and worked up close with local NGOs. This research has led to my recent book ‘Food Security for Rural Africa’ (Routledge 2018).

Poverty in these rural villages is extreme. Cropping for household food supply is common but that does not ensure an adequate diet. In countries in this region about 30 per cent of children under five are stunted in their growth. Unemployment in the rural areas is at seventy per cent despite economic growth rates that can go as high as 6 per cent per annum. Contrary to what one might imagine, the poor of this part of Africa are not landless peasants. More than thirty per cent of agricultural land in these countries is owned by the very families that are experiencing hunger and malnutrition. Families generally have sufficient cropping land to grow all their cereal needs. Villages also usually have communal grazing areas and woodlands equal in size to the whole of the village cropping land.

The shortcomings of the “Development” model

Most of the projects being run in the villages are not working and do not last more than a few years. Why do food security projects have such a small impact on rural poverty and malnutrition? What kinds of projects could work better? My central finding is that an ideology of entrepreneurial development bars the way to more effective strategies. All parties involved see the situation like this: What Africa needs is ‘development’, and the rural areas need to move away from ‘traditional’, ‘subsistence’ agriculture and adopt commercial options that will pay good wages and end the unemployment that drives the poor to subsistence farming. As a consequence, projects in the villages are almost all oriented towards attempts at turning very poor rural smallholders into successful entrepreneurs of small farming businesses.

‘Group entrepreneurial projects’ are intended to set up money-making cooperatives, to provide jobs and relieve dependency on the welfare system – developing capitalist enterprise, providing poverty relief, maintaining community ownership and bottom up participatory development all at the same time.

Group entrepreneurial project team, Mashishimale, South Africa. Pic. Terence Leahy

These projects are rarely successful and fail with great acrimony and bitterness all round. Projects typically recruit about forty villagers but are not funded with resources sufficient to enable viable incomes. People are not used to working in large groups and sharing money. Leaders of the project are distrusted, and largely suspected of corruption. The rest of the community feels left out, and vandalism and theft are a common response. The beneficiaries are supposed to be the ‘poorest of the poor’ but they lack the financial skills to run a business.

The other typical project design is intended to pick winners – it’s called the “Leading Farmer Projects”. Leading farmers are almost always the more middle class residents. They are supported to create successful commercial farms that the poor are expected to copy. To enable a marketable product the leading farmer is provided with equipment and inputs that are necessary to compete with large industrial farms. However, resource constraints prevent this technology from being made accessible to all the poor who need support. The poor cannot really copy the project as they do not have sufficient money to get a similar farm started. Moreover, the leading farmer has business skills that are not shared by their fellow villagers.

There is a basic economic reason why commercialisation projects cannot work. It relates to the typical size of the holdings of households with food security problems. They will have one to two hectares of cropping land and access to common grazing areas and woodlands. To make it sensible to farm for the market, the farm gate price of the commercial crop has to be high enough to cover the retail price of the food crop that the farmer has decided not to grow. In reality, on the land available to these villagers, commercial crops are rarely worth so much. The most sensible strategy for these smallholder families is to intensify their production of food crops for home consumption and to sell only what is left after all their food needs have been met.

Exploring alternatives

My research has uncovered a number of successful projects that are pursuing a non-market strategy. The four projects in question are KULIKA in Uganda, TSURO and CELUCT in Zimbabwe and Is’Baya in South Africa. The CELUCT project of the Chikukwa villages in Zimbabwe is an exemplary initiative. It has been going on for twenty-five years and has totally transformed an area spread around at least fifteen Kms., housing about 7,000 rural villagers. The project has sorted out the people’s food security problems and transformed their landscape to enable sustainable farming into the future.

Chikukwa villages, Zimbabwe, in the early nineties. Pic. Terence Leahy
Chikukwa villages more recently. Pic. Terence Leahy

These NGOs make food security through household production their priority. At the same time, beneficiaries are encouraged to believe they will produce a surplus for sale. The agricultural strategy is mixed farming with a minimal use of purchased inputs – to enable food security without the dangers of running short of cash to provide inputs. The aim is to produce all nutritional needs and for the different parts of the farm to support each other.

Crucially, all these projects are directed at improving the productivity of individual households on their own land. People are never paid to work on their own land or on the community land. Projects may start very small because they begin with people who are willing to volunteer their own work. They grow as the success of the approach becomes evident. Because these projects do not attempt to set up commercial farming operations, the cost of donations of materials to individual households remains minimal. The project can be offered to all the households in a village. No one is excluded and there is no community jealousy. Transparency and a degree of control by the beneficiaries are achieved through mechanisms of representation. These projects prove that interventions can only work if the local people believe that they meet a felt need. Most importantly, these NGOs do not set up projects for a few years and then pull out, leaving the villagers to manage on their own. Instead, the project team has an ongoing relationship with a set of client villages in their region.

Baba Matsekete (Chikukwa) with a contour bund constructed by villagers. Pic. Terence Leahy

My research and analysis of food security in Africa challenges the models promoted by academics in the field of development studies and by large donor organizations. What is evident is that with a very few exceptions the poorest of the poor are not going to become successful commercial farmers. Projects designed with that aim in mind have made little impact. Non-market alternatives are proving to be more successful.


Terry Leahy is an Australian sociologist. For the last 22 years he has been researching food security and agriculture projects in Africa. He has worked with local people, agricultural officers and NGOs to find out what makes projects work and to discover why many fail. In 2013, he completed the film, ‘The Chikukwa Project’, documenting a remarkably successful project in Zimbabwe. More recently he has published ‘Food Security for Rural Africa: Feeding the Farmers First’, a review of strategies for Africa.

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One thought on “Looking Beyond Entrepreneurial Illusions to End Africa’s Food Crisis

  • On Looking Beyond Entrepreneurial Illusions to End Africa’s Food Crisis
    on January 15, 2019 by Terry Leahy
    I do agree with the value of the self-sufficiency production for food security. However, how to deal with the other needs of the family like education health care… and community needs such as roads, power energy, communication… They may need other resources.


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