The world needs empowered farmers!

But what does that mean and how can it be organized? With the support of the SEWOH partners, journalist Jan Grossarth has gathered guiding thoughts on the topic in an article.

Felicitas Munsanje from Zambia is a member of a local dairy farmers' cooperative

Dr. Jan Grossarth

Dr Jan Grossarth is a freelance journalist and book author. His main topics are ecology, agriculture, food security and related social issues. After having worked as a senior editor at the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, he was head of communications at the Federal Ministry of Agriculture (BMEL) in 2019. Since 2020, he has worked as a freelance journalist for "Die Welt", "Jüdische Allgemeine", among others, and is a research associate in a project on bioeconomy at LMU Munich.

The organised agricultural lobbying that we see in industrialised nations is the exception. Is the political influence of certain interest groups – which make use of good parliamentary connections to work behind the scenes for meat exports or biomass subsidies – excessively large and insufficiently transparent? Such questions are the subject of discussion in Europe and the USA, and also in Brazil and Argentina – for good reason. With regard to global food security, another, to some extent contrary, question arises: how can “good lobbying” come about for the development interests of the world’s smallholders? After all, would it not be widely beneficial – and also necessary in order to ensure a stable global food supply – if the hundreds of millions of local farmers in Africa and Asia were able to represent their livelihood and development-related interests more effectively in parliaments, the media and international organisations?


When farmers unite, articulate their interests and fight collectively for these, everyone stands to gain. But bloated institutional structures may also be formed that establish privileges for the few in the name of the many. This has occurred frequently in the developing and emerging countries of the Global South – and not only there. The resulting dilemma is that farmers remain relatively poor, functionaries grow rich and nothing else changes. So how can the representation of farmers’ political interests be organised in a way that benefits everyone, and also meets the goals of food sovereignty? 


Nigeria, Birnin Kebbi: Workers at the Labana Rice Limited rice mill. (c) Thomas Imo/photothek/GIZ

In Europe, South and North America, agricultural organisations are rightly said to have a strong political lobby. Indeed, in light of failures relating to the protection of groundwater, insects or livestock, their lobbying power could be considered outrageously high. Vast animal factories fatten up tens of thousands of pigs or hundreds of thousands of chickens, with their feed – maize or grain from large, insect-poor fields.The political will to define smaller, more diverse forms of agriculture as models eligible for support is limited among decision-makers. In the industrially developed world, the impact of agro-industrial lobbying power on farmers is thus ambivalent. The “industrialization path” has made the remaining farmers more prosperous, but it has also long been the case that linear “progress” at the levels of specialization, globalization and resource dependency has been directed against the existential interests of the farmers themselves.


Agro-industrial lobbying power is ambivalent from the farmers` point of view. Its effects are ambiguous. To fail to acknowledge that farmers around the world desire a comfortable standard of living and that this always comes from industrial advancement, would be to fall into the trap of romanticisation. Viewing “farmers” and “industry” as completely separate is characteristic of an ideological approach to this complex issue. This has evolved historically and is culturally deeply engrained.  


But solutions lie not in ideologically loaded terms, but in a precise examination of places and projects. What can organised farmers from the North and those from the South learn from each other?


Organised meetings were part of the SEWOH initiative to help farmers become empowered. This was intended to inspire “good governance” or, to put it more casually, “good lobbying” for local farmers’ organisations.For example, interest groups from the German agricultural sector and the agricultural cooperative system – such as the Andreas Hermes Academy of the German Farmers’ Association and the German Cooperative and Raiffeisen Confederation (DGRV) – sought to form alliances with farmers’ associations from the Global South. 


Netherlands: during the Corona crisis, sales of potatoes plummeted as restaurants closed. (c) picture alliance/Remko de Waal/ANP

The idea was also to present the concept of cooperatives, which has proven successful in Germany since the 19th century up to the present day. Effectively, different worlds were brought together, with the encounter clearly demonstrating how vast the differences are. When, on the one hand, young farmers from Uganda are sitting in a Westphalian pig farmer’s living room as embers glow in the fireplace and ham sandwiches are served, and, on the other hand, Raiffeisen delegations and German farming functionaries are seated under the ceiling fans in marble-floored association offices in Kenya, and the expectation is that both sides are now supposed to learn from each other, it is not immediately apparent how that is to happen or where it might lead


The parties involved therefore decided that it would make sense to create projects that would run for several years. This yielded not just experiences, but also results. We hear there is now a Raiffeisen producer market in Cambodia, and a number of national farming organisations in Africa now have promising young officials at the helm who differ markedly from the previous type of official in terms of attitude and the way they wield power. An appropriate balance of humility and interest in power is considered crucial for the success of “good lobbying”, and this is something that experienced farming functionaries from the Global North could certainly also learn from others. 


Strong farmers’ organisations can support their members on at least two levels:


firstly on the level of political participation. And secondly on the practical level that supports entrepreneurial activity by, for example, combining interests in procurement and sales, offering services such as assistance with legal or tax matters, or organising joint purchasing schemes and the use of agricultural vehicles or warehouses. The cooperative is an appropriate model here. 


Cooperative organisations were familiar in many countries long before the SEWOH initiative, of course, but their reputation differs widely. While, for example, the German cooperative pioneer Friedrich Wilhelm Raiffeisen is revered like a saint (at least in agricultural circles) in Nepal, associations with the term “cooperative” are less positive elsewhere. In particular, in the former socialist countries of Africa and Asia, cooperatives were (as in the GDR) part of a social redistribution, expropriation and re-education project, and the term remains toxic among some farmers in these countries to this day. The memories are especially blood-soaked in Cambodia, where the Marxist-Leninist Khmer Rouge murdered around two million people, many of them farmers, in their attempt to collectivise farming into cooperatives and establish a “peasants’ state”


Loss of total harvest in the highlands of Tanzania (c) GIZ

The word “cooperative” is therefore no longer appropriate in many places, even if the idea is. The farmers of the South want to be free entrepreneurs. At least, that is what they say: they often speak of the “business mindset”, which is a magic phrase in development cooperation as well. What is needed are new technologies and markets – more intelligently embedded industrialisation and market economy. It is often not the yields that are inadequate, but rather the sales. According to FAO data, around one third of harvests rots or is lost in other ways. This is also a great sin in terms of climate change, because significant expenditure in terms of fertiliser and transportation indirectly goes into producing those harvests. Transforming after-crop and other losses into valuable products is in everyone’s interests, and a powerful association of local and regional smallholders is helpful in ensuring this succeeds.  


But the prevailing conditions are not the same as those faced by the earliest cooperatives in 19th century Germany, for example. For decades, farmers in the Global South have been competing with industrial imported goods from the Global North, such as cheap meat.


They lag behind on many levels – technical, financial. And they find themselves vying for land with land buyers from governmental or financial institutions who produce food here for export to China, Saudi Arabia or other destinations in ignorance of local structures and workers. Then there are industrially developed “white farmers”, such as in South Africa, Namibia or – until they were driven out – Zimbabwe. They may serve as role models or employers for the impoverished rural populace, or become bitter competitors for limited farmland. Overall, this multiply disadvantageous competitive situation can surely only be perceived as highly unfair and depressing.

In this context too, it must be borne in mind that not all smallholders are alike, and different smallholders require different representations of interest. This is evident when looking at the example of India: according to FAO calculations, the country is home to around a quarter of the world’s farms – around 137 million of them. 


India, Jaipur: Indian women farmers protest against the government's plan to restrict ownership of agricultural land. (c) picture alliance/Vishal Bhatnagar/NurPhoto

India was also the country that saw vehement farmers’ protests in 2020 in response to agricultural reforms to rescind state-guaranteed minimum prices, but in return open up markets and aim to promote e-commerce in foodstuffs. The reforms also planned to introduce environmental policy measures to improve air quality, which prohibited the common practice of smallholders burning their fields immediately after the harvest.


The protests in India were driven by a range of motivations and demands. A look at the list of participating associations reveals the confusing plurality of farmers’ voices. Among them was Bharatiya Kisan Union, a non-parliamentary smallholder movement with ties to “Via Campesina”, which originated in South America. They also included the communists of “All India Kisan Sabha” and anti-globalisation activists who took to the streets in protest against the presence of global corporations such as Nestlé or Bayer-Monsanto. Human rights organisations were also involved. Suicide rates among Indian farmers remain high, with 300,000 suicides recorded in two decades. The “agricultural issue“ here becomes a question that touches on the human right to life.  


The protests in India were a broad and multilayered social movement. Marching alongside was also the old notion of wanting to conserve smallholder farms at their current absolute numbers by means of state subsidies. That it would be possible to do so while facilitating simultaneous agrarian development remains a grand delusion held not only by Indian, but also some Western NGOs – a consequence of the inflexible metaphorical thinking that sees “farmers” and “industry” as polar opposites.  


Many agricultural partner organisations of the SEWOH initiative – whether from India, from Tanzania, Nigeria or other African countries – are more focused on matters other than subsidies or minimum prices. At a concluding conference with the partner organisations, frequent mention was again made of a “business mindset” that it would be imperative to strengthen. The farmers’ organisations advocated for giving smallholders a powerful voice in the value chain, from industrial processing to the retail sector that determines the ground rules for import and export.  


So which is right: politically aggressive social policies that support subsidies and oppose multinational corporations and “land grabbing” by state actors? Or is it entrepreneurial development favouring training, market development and technical progress?  


Benin, Cotonou: Women sell rice and traditional rice balls wrapped in foil at the market. (c) Ursula Meissner/GIZ

Both options have their justifications. There are good reasons for each, depending on which group of farmers is the focus. In India and Africa, average farmers have around one hectare of land, making them largely subsistence farmers. If the aim is to preserve these, free trade agreements will be less useful than subsidies and direct payments. But does that constitute agricultural policy? Is it not rather social and poverty mitigation policy?


A 2020 study conducted by Oxford University is helpful in distinguishing the two. According to this study, there are 558 million agricultural small businesses with less than 20 hectares of land on the planet. Over two thirds of these (or 410 million farms) have less than a single hectare of land at their disposal. One third does, however, cover between one and 20 hectares of land, and these, suggests the Oxford study (“Farmers and food systems”), are the smallholder farmers whose entrepreneurial development is promising. According to the study, only this group produces significant surpluses with which to supply markets; the other group lives in poverty and, at best, is able to provide their own family and parts of the neighbourhood with fruit, vegetables, rice or maize. The study describes a “duality within small-scale farming”.  


What would a powerful representation of interests look like for this group? It would continuously observe the interests of its base. The fact that effective farmers’ organisations need to be driven from the “bottom up”, that is, by the needs of their base, is also confirmed by all of SEWOH’s international partners. Crucially, the leaders of continental or national farmers’ associations should not be party political appointees, but voted for by intact democratic grassroots organisations.  


The precise interests of farmers vary from country to country. In one country it may make sense to permit the import of dairy products from the Global North because climate, soil or agricultural structure do not allow notable levels of domestic production. By contrast, in another country tariff-free imports might be extremely harmful to national commercial smallholders. It is important that trade policy-makers interact with strong and professional smallholder associations and listen to their interests when making such decisions.  


Kenya, Nairobi region: Farmers working in a potato field. (c) Dirk Ostermeier/GIZ

Giving farmers political clout is extremely important for development. “Smallholders must be closely integrated into the political agenda,” says SEWOH project partner Janet Edeme, director of the Rural Development Division at the African Union Commission in Addis Ababa. “Smallholders need connections to the highest political bodies,” she says, “such as through adequate representation by farmers’ associations.” This is, for example, in order to repeatedly work towards ensuring that the African free trade agreement is also implemented in the interests of farmers.


Constructive political influence is imaginable for many issues. Entire taxation systems could be designed more intelligently with regard to smallholder development – for example, by taking external positive effects of regional production into account in formulating tax policies (offering tax reductions). This would also serve as an incentive for supermarket chains at the “big table” of stakeholders. 


“Bottom up” is also one of the success factors identified by the Sadhikaratha Foundation, a non-profit organisation in India that offers technical assistance to hundreds of thousands of smallholders. In practice, “bottom up” usually also means “led by women”: after all, women do most of the farming work, not just in India. Successful farmers’ organisations must also be “system-oriented”, according to Sadhikaratha, meaning they must consider issues such as technologies, accounting, marketing and much more that farmers need. And ultimately, strong networks with retailers and agribusiness are also important. Only some of these ideas can be learnt from Raiffeisen. Particularly in India, cooperatives are considered obsolete and often politically entangled.  


Finally, it is important to bear in mind that economic development is a prerequisite for effective agricultural representation of interests.


This can be seen in Tanzania, where the proportion of smallholder production in the population’s food supply is especially high at around 80 per cent. Sinare Yusuf Sinare, president of the South African umbrella association of agricultural associations, is himself a farmer and owner of a hydroponic farm in Dar-es-Salaam. It produces meat and vegetables. Sinare grew up on a smallholding. “Back then we had powerful cooperatives,” he says, “but today those no longer exist in the area because everyone lives in extreme poverty.” The powerful cooperatives were also influenced by socialism. What is currently needed most (not only in Tanzania) is private investment, says Sinare Yusuf Sinare. Government development cooperation can help to improve conditions in order to make farming seem worthwhile.


DR Congo, Katende: Women farmers loosen the topsoil with hoes. (c) Christoph Püschner/Diakonie Katastrophenhilfe

Efforts to strengthen farmers’ institutions must allow for the wide range of prerequisites for success. Smart and situationally appropriate representation of interests always also takes the specific political power structures into account and seeks realistic ways to balance interests on this basis. Striving to emulate historic models such as the successful German cooperatives is not necessarily helpful, but organisations can learn from them. The Global North also cannot unequivocally serve as a role model: for example, many African farming representatives find it unbelievable that EU subsidies account for almost half of farms’ operating income. But precisely that, however, may also be an example of the result of decades of professional lobbying. Political lobbying is an approach to power. It`s success bases on the actors` art to maintain their distance and resist the temptation to allow their real-world and cultural interests to coalesce with those of policy-makers or corporations. For achieving success, personal development based on the Christian idea of humanity is helpful, which implies keeping a certain distance from power, say SEWOH partners. The Andreas Hermes Academy of the German Farmers’ Association considers facilitating such personal development as a part of its mission. 





  • Grashuis, Jasper, Su, Ye (2019), A review of the empirical literature on farmer cooperatives: Performance, ownership and governance, finance, and member attitude, in: Annals of Public and Cooperative Economics, 90, 1, p. 77-102.

  • Kiernan, Ben (2004), How Pol Pot came to power: colonialism, nationalism, and communism in Cambodia, 1930-1975. Yale University Press.

  • Uekötter, Frank (2012), Die Wahrheit ist auf dem Feld: eine Wissensgeschichte der deutschen Landwirtschaft. Göttingen.

  • Woodhill, Jjm, Hasnain, Saher, Griffith, Alison (2020), Farmers and food systems: What future for small-scale agriculture? Oxford.

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