Imagining Rural Revitalization

Jamison Ervin - April 02, 2019

The International Food Policy Research Institute recently launched their flagship publication with a focus on rural revitalization. The report asks all of us to envision a future where rural areas are at the center of agricultural transformation. To do so requires a bit of imagination. So imagine for a moment that you are Ivy, one of the 2.5 billion people on the planet who farm for a living. Imagine that you live in Rwanda, a country with the 2nd highest population density in Africa, where 98 percent of the population is rural, and more than 70 percent of the citizens are farmers, generating nearly 40 percent of Rwanda’s GDP. Imagine that you are a 25-year-old woman, with three children, and 60 percent of the country’s population is younger than you are. Your farm is 100 meters wide by 100 meters long, about the average size of a farm in Rwanda, and on par with the average farm size in eight neighboring countries. Like virtually every farm in Rwanda, your land is sloped, and faces heavy soil erosion from frequent and increasingly intense downpours. Imagine that you are growing cassava and raising chickens, one of the 12 crops and 5 animal species that comprise 75 percent of our global food supply. Imagine that you live on less than $1.50 a day, the average in your country, but considerably less than the 3.4 billion people on the planet who live on about $5 a day. Now imagine that you are getting ready for a day of farming.

This is the world we live in today. Millions of rural farmers like Ivy do not have access to ten of the essential ingredients required to make a go of farming in today’s world. They lack access to the energy required to plow, plant, water, harvest, process and store their crops, resulting in up to 30% of on-farm food loss. Ivy may be among the 2.1 billion people who lack reliable access to water, relying instead on increasingly sporadic rainfall. She may lack the basic equipment that would make their lives immeasurably easier, and that would allow them to process their harvest. In the case of Rwanda, only 6% of agricultural products are processed, and only a third of the food produced on a typical Rwandan farm reaches a market. If she does not have a cell phone, she will not be among the 10 percent of farmers who have access to sophisticated apps for precision farming. Without access to transportation, and without a connection to urban market demand, many rural farmers do not have access to increasingly sophisticated and upscale markets, such as that emerging in Kigali. If her crop fails, an increasing likelihood under climate change, she does not have a backup plan, and like most farmers in her country, does not have crop insurance. She is not alone; Africa accounts for just 2% of global agricultural insurance premiums. Although extension services exist, women routinely face biases in accessing extension services, as is the case in many developing countries. Like most farmers, her work is considered a risky venture, exacerbated by her lack of collateral and secure land tenure. To access bank loans and lines of credit, she may be looking at interest rates of 17 percent or higher. She is lucky – annual interest rates for agriculture in many parts of the world top 50 percent.

This is the world we live in today. Ivy, and hundreds of millions of family and smallholder farmers like her, supply 80 percent of the food supply in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa – some 4.4 billion people. But what about the world of her daughter, who will be 35 in 2050? By then, food demand will have increased by an average of 80 percent, energy demand will increase by nearly 60 percent, and water demand will increase by 55 percent. And with 68 percent of the world living in urban areas, that pressure will fall on an increasingly diminished rural population. At the same time, climate change will have increased Rwanda’s temperature by as much as 2o Celsius or more, as it will many places in the world.

This is the world we live in today, but it doesn’t have to be this way. We can envision a world where farmers have access to the inputs they need – clean energy, clean water, genetically diverse and climate resilience seeds, crop insurance and extension support. Where farmers, including young farmers, are growing high-value crops and adding even more value through on-farm processing, are growing nutrient-dense foods for their families, their communities and urban centers, generating new markets, establishing urban-to-farm linkages, and are part of resilient, global supply chains.

This future is not only possible, it is vital and essential. We must radically transform our social and economic systems: we must catalyze private sector finance for clean energy, radically increase access to credit and microloans; restore degraded soils, habitats and watersheds; ensure rural access to clean water; promote diverse and resilient crops, including through agroforestry; design social safeguards for failure from climate change; promote corporate sustainable supply chains, and forge new urban partnerships that revitalize a rural economy.

But before all that, we need to transform something else. We need to transform our own imaginations. We must be able to envision a future not only of a healthy, green planet, but also of thriving, prosperous rural communities. This year’s UNDP-led Equator Prize in September, focusing on rural, nature-based solutions to climate change, will help us do just that! Adding to the more than 220 existing prize winners, we’ll be showcasing 20 new prize winners this fall. Stay tuned; we’ll be announcing the winners in early summer.



About the author

Jamison Ervin is Manager of the Global Programme on Nature for Development in

UNDP’s Bureau for Policy and Programme Support in New York.


Follow her on Twitter at @jamisonervin

To find more posts, visit the Equator Blog.

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