African governments are once again promoting large plantations and estates, but a study highlights the complex choices and trade-offs of different farming models.

What commercial farming model should African policymakers pursue? A three-year study of the different farming models in Ghana, Kenya and Zambia highlights the complex choices to be made.

“Different pathways of agricultural commercialisation will have different effects on the conomy – and create different winners and losers,” says Professor Ruth Hall.

“Colonialism brought large-scale farming to Africa, promising modernisation and jobs – but often dispossessing people and exploiting workers,” Professor Hall explains. Now, after several decades of independence, and with investor interest growing, African governments are once again promoting large plantations and estates.

As the large-scale colonial model returns, the future of small-scale farmers is increasingly uncertain. The search is on for alternatives to big plantations and estates that can bring in private investment without dispossessing local people – and preferably also support people's livelihoods by creating jobs and strengthening local economies.

In this study, researchers considered the pros and cons of three farming models: large plantations or estates with on-farm processing; contract farming by small-holder farmers who produce cash crops on their own land as ‘outgrowers’ on contract to agro-processing companies; and individual medium-scale commercial farms.

In-depth case studies across the three countries highlighted the real choices and trade-offs policymakers face. “We found, for example, that medium-scale commercial farmers produce more local economy stimulus than the other two models, yet contract farming is viewed by some as a ‘win-win’ solution, enabling commercial investment for global markets without dispossessing local farmers,” she explains. Large plantations and estates can also offer benefits in terms of jobs, although these are low quality and mostly casual.

What's clear, the research concludes, is that models of agricultural commercialisation don’t always deliver what's expected of them – in part due to differing local conditions – and policymakers must take into account local conditions in the search for more sustainable and inclusive pathways of commercialisation.