Small farms, smaller plots: land size, fragmentation, and productivity in Ethiopia

Wednesday, April 19, 2017
The Journal of Peasant Studies

A new article published today in the Journal of Peasant Studies by Mark Paul, a postdoctoral associate at the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity, and Mwangi wa Gĩthĩnji entitled "Small farms, smaller plots: land size, fragmentation, and productivity in Ethiopia" explores the relationship between yield, farm size and fragmentation using an Ethiopian national survey. Paul and Gĩthĩnji find an inverse relationship between farm size and yield, and a positive association between yield and land fragmentation.


Heightened interest in African agriculture has led to a debate on the degree to which yields can be improved in the sector. Confronted with an agricultural landscape of small and often fragmented farms, part of the standard policy approach has been to suggest increased formal land titling (Deininger and Jin 2006 Deininger, K., and S. Jin. 2006. Tenure security and land-related investment: Evidence from Ethiopia. European Economic Review 50, no. 5: 1245–77. doi: 10.1016/j.euroecorev.2005.02.001[CrossRef], [Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Musembi 2007 Musembi, Celestine Nyamu. 2007. De Soto and land relations in rural Africa: Breathing life into dead theories about property rights. Third World Quarterly 28, no. 8: 1457–78. doi: 10.1080/01436590701637334[Taylor & Francis Online], [Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) to secure tenure with either administrative or market-led consolidation, alongside support for large-scale commercial farms, often in the form of land grabs (Collier 2008 Collier, P. 2008. Politics of hunger: How illusion and greed fan the food crisis. Foreign Affairs, November/December, 67–87. [Google Scholar]; Collier and Venables 2012 Collier, P., and A.J. Venables. 2012. Land deals in Africa: Pioneers and speculators. OxCarre Research Paper 69. ) as a way of transforming African agriculture (Hallam 2009 Hallam, David. 2009. Foreign investment in developing country agriculture: Issues, policy implications and international response. OECD Global Forum on International Investment 8, no. 1: 1–9. [Google Scholar]; World Bank 2010 World Bank. 2010. Principles for responsible agricultural investment that respects rights, livelihoods and resources. Washington, DC: World Bank. [Google Scholar], 36). In fact, during a relatively short period of time foreign direct investment in agriculture rose rapidly from USD 600 million in the 1990s to around USD 3 billion on average during 2005–2007 (UNCTAD 2009 UNCTAD. 2009. World investment report 2009. Transnational corporations, agricultural production and development. New York: UNCTAD. [Google Scholar]).

The push for land consolidation and support for large-scale commercial farming lies in contrast to a long-existing literature that suggests an inverse relationship between farm size and yield per unit of land. While the higher yield per acre of smaller farms, conventionally known as the IR effect (inverse relationship between farm size and yield per unit of land) has been well studied in the Asian, and particularly Southeast Asian, context there are relatively few studies in the African context, and those that exist tend to be sub-national studies. Critics of the IR have therefore argued that there is not sufficient evidence in the African case to base agrarian policy on the existence of an IR (Sender and Johnston 2004 Sender, J., and D. Johnston. 2004. Searching for a weapon of mass production in rural Africa: Unconvincing arguments for land reform. Journal of Agrarian Change 4, no. 1–2: 142–64. doi: 10.1111/j.1471-0366.2004.00075.x[CrossRef][Google Scholar]).

Apart from farms being small, fragmentation is frequently viewed as an impairment to productivity gains (Ali and Deininger 2015 Ali, D.A., and K. Deininger. 2015. Is there a farm-size productivity relationship in African agriculture? Evidence from Rwanda. Land Economics 91, no. 2: 317–43. doi: 10.3368/le.91.2.317[CrossRef], [Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). When fragmentation is present, farmers may spend additional resources to travel between plots, plow discontinuous fields, monitor labor in different areas and move farm equipment (Rahman and Rahman 2009 Rahman, S. and M. Rahman. 2009. Impact of land fragmentation and resource ownership on productivity and efficiency: The case of rice producers in Bangladesh. Land Use Policy 26, no. 1: 95–103. doi: 10.1016/j.landusepol.2008.01.003[CrossRef], [Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Kawasaki 2010 Kawasaki, K. 2010. The costs and benefits of land fragmentation of rice farms in Japan. Australian Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics 54, no. 4: 509–26. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8489.2010.00509.x[CrossRef], [Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). This paper, investigating the link between fragmentation and the farm size productivity debate, is of particular importance in today’s policy environment where land grabs, involving land consolidation, have been advocated as a means to increase agricultural production (Collier and Dercon 2014 Collier, P., and S. Dercon. 2014. African agriculture in 50 years: Smallholders in a rapidly changing world? World Development 63, no. 10: 82–101. [Google Scholar]).

Ethiopia in particular has been subject to extensive land grabs which have been largely supported by the government as part of its agricultural transformation strategy (Lavers 2012 Lavers, Tom. 2012. Patterns of agrarian transformation in Ethiopia: State-mediated commercialisation and the ‘land grab’. The Journal of Peasant Studies 39, no. 3–4: 795–822. doi: 10.1080/03066150.2012.660147[Taylor & Francis Online], [Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; UNDP 2012 UNDP. 2012. An assessment of operation and performance of commercial farms in Ethiopia. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: UNDP. [Google Scholar]). In both of its most recent economic plans, namely the Growth and Transformation Plan 1: 2010/11-2014/15 (GTP 1) and the Growth and Transformation Plan 2: 2015/16-2019/20 (GTP 2) (Ministry of Finance and National Development 2010 Ministry of Finance and National Development. 2010. Growth and transformation plan 2010/112014/15. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: Ministry of Finance and Economic Development. Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. [Google Scholar]; National Planning Commission 2016 National Planning Comission. 2016. Growth and transformation Plan II. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: Ministry of Finance and Economic Development. Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. ), in addition to the support for consolidation and small farmer commercialization the government has embarked on a specifically pro-large-scale land acquisition program. In GTP 1 the government aimed to transfer a total of 2.3 million hectares of land to large-scale commercial farming, mainly in the horticultural sector. While not achieving its target, it did manage during the period to actually transfer 840,000 hectares (National Planning Commission 2016 National Planning Comission. 2016. Growth and transformation Plan II. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: Ministry of Finance and Economic Development. Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. ).

The findings in this paper shed light on whether the policy priorities put forth by international organizations and often implemented by national governments are perhaps counter-productive to poverty reduction and food security objectives. Our paper thus attempts to do two things in response to the contemporary discussion: first, we establish the existence of the IR using national data in the context of a large and populous African country that is predominantly agricultural, namely Ethiopia; second, we connect the debate on farm size and yield to address the conventional assumption that consolidation of fragmented plots will necessarily lead to higher output.

Read the full article here