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Farmers need to organise



Theo de Jager's viewpoint

For Theo de Jager, president of the Pan-African Farmers’ Organization, mechanising agriculture in Africa calls for farmers, especially women, to join together and organise in cooperatives, to be able to access modern equipment.

What are the priorities in the next couple of years to get agricultural mechanisation on the road in Africa?

I will focus on what farmers can do themselves because half of what needs to be done, farmers can really do nothing about. They can try to influence policy through advocacy, but they cannot bring infrastructure to rural areas; they cannot change trade policies. What they can do themselves, is be better organised. Only through organising into cooperatives can smallholders reach the level of mechanisation which will take farming to the next level.

Also, there is no need to go back to 1950's or 60's technology if you do not want smallholder farmers to always lag behind. You need to go to the latest technology. The latest tractors do not need drivers! They can be operated via a smart phone, laptop or GPS. But it's only when smallholders organise into big groups that those machines become affordable, and that they have the expertise to operate and maintain them. So the first condition for mechanisation is organisation into what we call cooperatives, but they can be called something else.

The second condition is linkages to markets, as the only pulling force in agriculture is the market. We must produce what the markets want and the markets are rapidly changing, even in Africa. There are more Africans living in big cities now than in rural areas, and the people in cities get their food from the shop shelves. It needs to be packaged and processed, so value chains must be developed – but hopefully not by governments but by the farmers themselves. Real profit in agriculture is in the journey of food from the farm gate to the consumer's plate and if farmers can own that in Africa, they will be much more profitable. But they can only do so if they are organised in cooperatives.

But cooperatives exist in Africa already. So why doesn't it work?

The answer is different for different areas. In the Congo, Gabon and even Ghana, farmers associate cooperatives with a political entity. They think of cooperatives as a way for the government to control them. So we need to call cooperatives something else, a club-in or whatever. We need to change the frame of mind.

Is there a link between heavy subsidising of agriculture and equipment being left aside?

Affordability is a big issue to machinery access. Subsidies are a way to make machinery affordable, but not the way to make it workable. What is also key is to manage the breakdowns. No smallholder can afford a mechanic but if a hundred smallholders join together to own a machine, there is the capacity to pay for a mechanic. And then of course, the vocational training in Africa is close to nothing. Although, you need special training and for this we need exchange programmes for youngsters.

Women are the ones most involved in agriculture. How can mechanisation deal with this?

In the global mechanisation paradigm 20 years ago, this was an issue because it was said that women were not strong enough to handle big machines. In the modern paradigm, the operator just needs to place his or her fingertip on a smart phone. Technology is changing all the time and youngsters need to take advantage of it. So if we want women to enter mechanisation, they need the latest technology – and we must target young women. The future of African agriculture lies with them.