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Assisting smallholder farmers to grow more nutritious food for themselves and their families is a priority for Irish Aid. Better seeds, credit and fertilisers are making a big difference.

Several farmers in a green rice paddy field as they spread fertiliser by hand in Tanzania.


Ireland has become a global leader in efforts to eradicate global hunger and under-nutrition. Irish Aid policy in this area emphasises the importance of the agriculture sector in developing countries as a means of raising the incomes of the poor to help reduce poverty and hunger. 

The vast majority of poor people in sub-Saharan African (Irish Aid’s predominant area of focus) live in rural areas, many surviving from working the land.   Irish Aid gives priority to assisting such smallholder farmers, in particular women farmers, to increase both the quantity and the nutritional quality  of food they produce to consume and sell.   Better seeds, more and better fertilisers for growing crops, and improved access to credit, are making a big difference.

Looking ahead, by 2050 the food needs of a growing world population will require that food production increases by 60-70% worldwide. Developing countries will be hardest pressed.  It is estimated they will need to double food output. The United Nations High Level Task Force on Hunger says  support for smallholder farmers is one of the most important ways of tackling world hunger and ensuring global food security for future generations.  Irish Aid shares this view.  Our reinforced support to the agriculture sector in developing countries is rooted in the recommendations of the 2008 Hunger Task Force Report, and builds on our long-term experience of supporting agriculture in Irish Aid country programmes.

Agricultural research for development

Agricultural research holds the key to improving agricultural productivity and food utilisation and storage. Previous research has already had a dramatic effect – for example, through improved livestock breeds, increased African rice yields, and crop pest reduction.

We accordingly have a strong focus on supporting global agricultural research for development, such as is undertaken by the  Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

CGIAR is a global system of agricultural research for development that undertakes research which includes the development and propagation of more productive,  hardier, seeds able to resist floods and droughts , and better farming techniques. The aim is to improve crop yields, and breed crops which are more nutritious, while also utilising more sustainable farming practices which are climate-smart, nutrition-sensitive and gender-sensitive.  

Irish Aid’s targeted support for agricultural research within CGIAR is strategically grounded in the recommendations of the 2008 Hunger Task Force report. We prioritise research into improving smallholder productivity in ways which are climate-smart, nutrition-sensitive and gender-sensitive.

Impact of climate change

Emerging, sometimes abrupt, shifts in previously long-established patterns of seasonal weather have made it difficult to predict when to plant and when to harvest. Droughts and floods have become more common.‌ To meet this challenge, and to improve resilience and sustainability, we actively encourage new farming techniques and ‘green’ farming practices which have been informed by research and evidence of what works. These include conservation agriculture, agroforestry,  water management schemes, raised vegetable gardens and the use of seeds that are flood-resistant, drought-resistant and more resilient against disease.

Climate change and environmental degradation increases the risk of hunger and under-nutrition for the world’s poorest and most marginalised people who live in high risk environments.  At global level, we contribute to work on managing climate change consequences for the poor smallholder through our support for the GGIAR Research Programme on Climate Change and Food Security (CCAFS). 

In Dublin in April 2013, the Government of Ireland and the Mary Robinson Foundation - Climate Justice , supported by amongst others, CGIAR through the research programme CCAFS, hosted a major international conference on ‘Hunger-Nutrition-Climate Justice’.  This  brought  key policy-makers together  with grassroots people facing the realities of failed crops, rising food prices, under-nutrition and hunger. The conference sought to place people at the centre of the policy process currently underway to develop the new Post-2015 international development framework, and to ensure that this new policy is firmly rooted in the reality of their lives.

Research Into Use

Although agricultural science for development outcomes has made significant progress in breeding such higher-yielding, more robust, crop varieties, the productivity of smallholder farmers in  sub-Saharan Africa is still well below its potential. Various factors, structural, geographic and sociological, combine to create this problem of low crop yields. One big problem is that much agricultural research does not get  into use in farmers’ fields there.

The reasons for this include inadequate partnership links between research institutions and those working at community-level development; poor access to training, inputs and credit by smallholders; and a lack of the necessary capacity in national agricultural research and extension systems.

Recognising these shortcomings, increasingly determined and dedicated efforts are made within CGIAR and outside to get agricultural research into use. Irish Aid is, for example, directly supporting Farm Radio International to provide advisory services to smallholders in Ethiopia, Malawi, Uganda and Tanzania. 

Promoting policies that respond to needs of smallholder farmers

Irish Aid works closely with partners at national and international level to ensure that national agricultural policies in developing countries respond to the needs of smallholder farmers. We support governments in their implementation of agricultural programmes that target smallholder farmers. We are providing support to smallholder farmer associations. This can help promote various hunger-reduction activities, such as getting new agricultural innovations into use at scale (ie. on a widespread way), promoting more nutritious crops, and assisting with access to inputs and credit through micro-credit/savings schemes. Irish Aid has supported national smallholder farmer organisations in Malawi and Tanzania,  as well as smaller farmer groups in Ethiopia and Uganda, to ensure that their voice is heard.

We encourage  diversification by farmers to grow a range of  crops, and work for the creation of better access to inputs and land, and for better links between smallholders and markets.

Encouraging new farming techniques

We also actively encourage new farming techniques and ‘green’ farming practices which have been informed by research and evidence of what works.

These include conservation agriculture, agroforestry, water management schemes, raised vegetable gardens and the use seeds that are flood and drought-resistant.

Women farmers

Women are vital to increasing food production. Women account for much of the food production in Africa, yet are often not given equal opportunities to participate in agricultural training and outreach services, or in decision-making at household, community or national level.

Often they don’t have access to good-quality seeds, or to training in improved farming practices. Lack of participation by women in decision-making, as well as restricted rights to land, is contributing to farm yields being well below potential.

We also work with partners to improve women’s rights in agriculture. For example, we are in partnership with the International Land Coalition to influence land tenure decision-making processes, and international negotiations on access to land, and rights to land, for women.

Poor infrastructure, limited access to credit

Another challenge is that poor infrastructure prevents or hinders many smallholder farmers from reaching markets to sell their produce. Or they cannot sell their produce to best advantage because they do not have essential marketing and business skills. Often too, these farmers have no access to affordable credit.

For example, in Malawi we support the government’s national Farm Input Subsidy Programme. which has contributed towards food security in Malawi, by providing 1.6 million farmers each year with improved maize seeds and certified legumes, in turn improving crop productivity, soil fertility and family nutrition.

Read more about Agriculture and Hunger