Last month, world leaders gathered at the UN General Assembly to agree on a set of lofty “global goals”—officially known as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)—which set measurable targets to solve the world’s biggest challenges. This isn’t the first time world leaders have set ambitious targets – the SDGs built on the Millennium Development Goals that were created 15 years ago.
While the global goals present a daunting task, we already know how to make progress on many of them simultaneously: invest in smallholder farmers.
End poverty (goal 1), and end hunger (goal 2) will only be achieved by supporting farmers. Smallholder farmers are the largest group of people in the world living in poverty. This presents a tremendous opportunity, because economic growth in agriculture is estimated to be two to four times more powerful at reducing poverty than growth in other sectors. As smallholders become more productive, they’re able to invest in new business opportunities, increase their purchasing power, build resilience, and save for the future.
To end hunger, the UN estimates that the world will need to produce 60 percent more food by 2050 than it does today. Smallholder farmers are perfectly positioned to meet that need – they already produce 70 percent of the food we consume. While yields are maximized in most regions, studies show that farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa only achieve 20-30 percent of possible yields. Africa is the “last frontier” for smallholder farmers to dramatically increase their productivity.
Smallholder farmers can also contribute to significant progress on other global goals, including ensure healthy lives (goal 3), ensure quality education (goal 4), and take care of the earth (goal 15). Research shows that increases in agriculture productivity improves nutrition for children and mothers, particularly in the critical 1,000 day window between pregnancy and a child’s second birthday. When farmers boost their incomes, they don’t have to clear additional land for agriculture use, and can keep their children in school.
In order for smallholder farmers to contribute to meaningful progress on the global goals, they need access to some basic tools and services. The solutions to unlocking greater productivity and incomes for farmers are known. But we need a significant investment of resources from governments, donors, and nonprofits to bring those solutions to the field where smallholder farmers live.
In 2003, all 54 heads of state in the African Union pledged to spend at least 10 percent of their budgets on agriculture and food security. However, over ten years later, most governments are still coming up short. For smallholder farmers to benefit, governments should move past rhetoric and deliver resources directed towards their needs.
Donors can build on that support as well. In the aftermath of the world food price crisis, donor governments stepped up at the L’Aquila G8 Summit and invested in agriculture development on a scale not seen for decades. Fortunately, food markets eventually stabilized, but unfortunately, donor interest waned, and overall funding has been gradually decreasing ever since. It shouldn’t take another crisis for smallholder farmers to get the support they need to make the business of farming productive. Donors need to increase their funding of agriculture development.
Nonprofit organizations play a key role in direct interaction with farmers in the field. My organization, One Acre Fund, supplies over 300,000 smallholder farmers in East Africa with financing, access to seed and fertilizer, village-level trainings, and market facilitation to help them grow their way out of hunger and poverty. Other organizations, such as BRAC and Opportunity International, are doing great work to link farmers to financial services adapted to their needs. HarvestPlus works to improve the nutrition of families living in poverty by ensuring they grow food fortified with key nutrients. These organizations need additional resources to scale up their work to reach millions of additional farmers.
Agriculture is the common thread running through nine of the 17 SDGs, from hunger and poverty to health, education, and the environment. Because smallholder farmers comprise the largest group of people living in poverty, no sector is more vital to achieving the global goals than agriculture. Without farm income, health interventions and access to education will fall flat. And increases in agricultural productivity are key to reducing water use, mitigating climate change, and growing rural economies. The resources available to invest in achieving the global goals are limited. To maximize the impact of our global efforts to achieve the SDGs, the world must prioritize investments in smallholder farmers.
One Acre Fund is a nonprofit social enterprise that supplies smallholder farmers with the tools and financing they need to grow their way out of hunger and poverty. Follow One Acre Fund on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.