Adequate food production is essential for food security. Smallholder farmers, on average, produce about one-third of the food within the food systems, despite having very limited access to land. Most smallholder farmers rely heavily on human labour as the main source of power for production, which means that production activities are backbreaking work for the smallholder. Consequently, removing drudgery from production must be a central consideration in strategies for improving the livelihood of smallholder farmers.
One way to reduce drudgery and increase smallholder farmer productivity is mechanisation. Mechanisation is the application of tools, equipment, or machines in the agricultural production process – ideally, in a manner that is socially, culturally, economically, and environmentally friendly. Since most smallholder farmers spend many hours each day working on their land, mechanisation can significantly reduce the time invested in hard manual labour.
What role does agricultural mechanisation play in food systems?
Agricultural mechanisation plays a major role in helping to mitigate some of the challenges faced within food systems. These challenges include urbanisation, inefficient production, and the impact of climate (and climate change). Mechanisation can reduce the impacts of these challenges on production through, for example, providing an effective means of power substitution. Mechanical power can be used to replace (or reduce) the human labour required for production which, in turn, addresses the challenge of reduced availability of labour in rural communities due to urbanisation. Furthermore, mechanisation increases operational efficiency and productivity, as farming operations can be executed more effectively. To illustrate: a farmer who owns a power tiller can prepare their fields for planting much more effectively and quickly than is possible when only using human labour.
Recent trends in mechanisation have seen the promotion of conservation agriculture, which seeks to provide the farmer with machinery that will ensure sustainable production that will not lead to the depletion of land fertility. Conservation agriculture methods are easier to adopt and use continuously by the farmer when effectively mechanised.
Is mechanisation feasible for smallholder farmers?
Smallholder agriculture production can be effectively mechanised with scale-appropriate mechanisation. Scale-appropriate mechanisation means that the equipment promoted and used suits the needs of the smallholder farmer in terms of farm size and general production conditions. The right machinery capacity for each farming operation is determined by evaluating the quantity of work expected to be completed and time required for each farming operation. For example, a power tiller being used for tilling a small piece of land is more scale appropriate than a tractor and plough aggregate. Likewise, the use of a mini combine would be more scale appropriate for a small rice farm than a big combine harvester.
Mini rice combine harvester
The willingness of the smallholder farmer to adopt and use the equipment proposed is important to the sustainability of any proposed interventions. Our FSNet-Africa research team will thus focus on evaluating the factors that influence farmers’ choice of specific mechanisation models. This study will consider gender, including men and women’s roles, responsibilities, and relationships in developing strategies for effective mechanisation. Considering gender dynamics is an integral part of ensuring that mechanisation is perceived as socio-culturally acceptable and therefore effectively implemented. In response to a recent episode of “In Conversation with FSNet-Africa” where agricultural mechanisation was being discussed, an important question was posed that might be asked of a smallholder farmer: “Would you hire machinery from a female machine owner?” This is an example of the type of question that our research team would present to study participants to evaluate perceptions of gender roles as they relate to mechanisation.
Furthermore, there are existing socio-cultural norms that affect equipment acquisition and utilisation. Among these socio-cultural norms are the gender roles within societies that affect equipment ownership and operation. Most communities have men as household leaders thus they are more likely than women to have the capacity to acquire and control the use of machinery. However, women constitute the majority of smallholder farmers; thus, effective mechanisation of smallholder agriculture requires that machinery ownership and control must expand beyond traditional gendered limitations.
What are the main challenges related to mechanisation within African food systems that researchers should address?
Effective mechanisation in food systems is hindered by smallholders’ limited access to machines for utilisation in production. This is exacerbated by little to no technical expertise at the farm level, limited human resource development, lack of financing and insurance, gender inequalities, and an under-performing research-and-development sector. In order to take advantage of all the benefits of mechanisation, the whole production value chain – that is, all the steps in production that each add value to the original product – must be mechanised to ensure timely and effective agricultural processes. These crop production process include land preparation, planting, husbandry activities, harvesting, and post-harvest activities. If, for example, land preparation is mechanised but not the planting stage, timely planting can be hindered if not enough labour is available. Similarly, if only harvesting is mechanised, not only could overall production remain low due to sub-optimal manual land preparation and planting, but the harvester can also end up being under-utilised since the overall production is much lower than the operating capacity of the harvester.
In addition, because equipment acquisition can be capital intensive, there is the need to have flexible financing models accompanied by good insurance schemes that will make it attractive to the smallholder farmer to adopt machinery.
Of all the issues mentioned, the lack of intensive research on mechanisation related issues and the development of human capital makes it difficult to formulate innovative solutions to the challenges currently preventing effective local mechanisation.
Call to action
In order to ensure that appropriate mechanisation is promoted among and used by smallholder farmers, mechanisation should not be an afterthought in projects aimed at improving the livelihoods of farmers. During the planning stage of such projects, the role and impact of mechanisation should be evaluated and then integrated into the project from the start. This will ensure that scale-appropriate machinery will be provided to farmers to ensure effective mechanisation and increased production.