Are medium-scale farms driving agricultural transformation in sub-Saharan Africa?

T. S. Jayne,  Milu Muyanga, Ayala Wineman, Hosaena Ghebru, Caleb Stevens, Mercedes Stickler, Antony Chapoto, Ward Anseeuw, Divan van der Westhuizen, David Nyang

This study was supported by: (i) the Food Security Policy Innovation Lab, led by Michigan State University and funded by USAID/Bureau for Food Security; (ii) the Agricultural Policy Research in Africa (APRA), led by the Institute of Development Studies/Sussex and funded by DfID/UK; (iii) the CGIAR Research Program on Policies, Institutions, and Markets (PIM); (iv) the Africa Agricultural Policy Unit at the World Bank; and (v) the Agriculture and Agroindustry Department, African Development Bank.


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This study presents evidence of profound farm-level transformation in parts of sub- Saharan Africa, identifies major sources of dynamism in the sector, and proposes an updated typology of farms that reflects the evolving nature of African agriculture. Repeat waves of national survey data are used to examine changes in crop production and marketed output by farm size. Between the first and most recent surveys (generally covering 6 to 10 years), the share of national marketed crop output value accounted for by medium-scale farms rose in Zambia from 23% to 42%, in Tanzania from 17% to 36%, and in Nigeria from 7% to 18%. The share of land under medium-scale farms is not rising in densely populated countries such as Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda, where land scarcity is impeding the pace of medium-scale farm acquisitions. Medium-scale farmers are a diverse group, reflecting distinct entry pathways into agriculture, encouraged by the rapid development of land rental, purchase, and long-term lease markets. The rise of medium-scale farms is affecting the region in diverse ways that are difficult to generalize. Findings indicate that these farms can be a dynamic driver of agricultural transformation but this does not reduce the importance of maintaining a clear commitment to supporting smallholder farms. Strengthening land tenure security of local rural people to maintain land rights and support productivity investments by smallholder households remains crucial.


Ever since the critical acclaim given to the Asian green revolution starting in the 1980s, it has been widely accepted that a smallholder-led growth strategy would also be the pathway for achieving economic transformation and mass poverty reduction in Africa. Over 90% of farms in South and East Asia were smaller than two hectares at the beginning of the Green Revolution (Hayami & Ruttan, 1971; Johnston & Kilby, 1975). Because small-scale farms also constitute the vast majority of farms in Africa, agricultural economists have generally accepted that a smallholder-led strategy also holds the best prospects for agricultural development in Africa (e.g., Hazell, Poulton, Wiggins, & Dorward, 2010; Mellor, 1995).

However, parts of sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) are witnessing rapid changes in farm size distributions. “Medium-scale” farm landholdings of five to 100 ha now account for a substantial and growing share of farmland in many African countries (Jayne et al., 2016).1 Perhaps ironically, the amount of land acquired by this category of African farmer since 2000 far exceeds the amount of land acquired by foreign investors (Jayne et al., 2014a). This might be considered a surprising development, but in retrospect, perhaps it should not have been. The dramatic rise in global food prices after 2007 initiated major foreign investment in African farmland. Why should not African investors have done the same?

Parallel to these developments, the region is witnessing changes in land tenure institutions that influence who is acquiring land (Boone, 2014; Knapman, Silici, Cotula, & Mayers, 2017). Parts of the region are experiencing a notable shift in the allocation of customary land, moving from a rights-based approach that secures access to land for localborn members of the community to market-based approaches in which land becomes a commodity for rent or sale. Although SSA’s rural areas contain 20.3 million km2 of land, only 25% of the region is arable (CIA 2019). With an estimated rural population of 620 million people in 2017, the region is sparsely populated at 31 persons per km2. However, roughly 72% of SSA’s rural population resides on only 10% of its rural areas (Jayne, Chamberlin, & Headey, 2014b). For this majority of the region’s rural population, the average population density is 223.2 persons per km2. Hence, even though most of SSA might be considered “land abundant” and sparsely populated, a relatively large proportion of rural Africans face land scarcity, rapidly rising land prices, and perceptions of tenure insecurity (Knapman et al., 2017; Lawry et al., 2014; Wineman & Jayne, 2018). As population densities rise and land becomes scarcer in many areas, tenure security is becoming increasingly important, as research evidence shows that security of tenure generally promotes long-term land investments and agricultural productivity (Atwood, 1990; Goldstein, Houngbedji, Kondylis, O’Sullivan, & Selod, 2015; Holden, Deininger, & Ghebru, 2009; Place, 2009).

African policy makers and development organizations are increasingly interested in whether these new trends in farm size distributions are beneficial for small-scale farm households, who still constitute the vast majority of rural households in Africa, and whether they are promoting or retarding equitable forms of economic transformation in Africa. This study reviews the evidence on these policy issues.

To address these questions, we focus on the causes and consequences of the rise of medium-scale farms in Africa. This literature remains highly limited by the fact that accurate data on farms over 20 ha is not available in the majority of African countries. We therefore collected new primary data on medium-scale farms that are considered statistically representative of farms operating between 5 and 100 ha for particular districts or comparable administrative units in Malawi, Nigeria, and Senegal. While most of the studies attempting to analyze farm structure in Africa utilize Living Standards Monitoring Surveys (LSMS) or similar nationwide farm data sets, it is increasingly acknowledged that almost all of these datasets provide highly imprecise and most likely under-reported estimates of the numbers of farms operating over 10 ha of land. Evidence of this is provided in Section 2. However, even when utilizing these datasets, as we do for Ghana, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Zambia in Section 3, it is shown that medium-scale farms are accounting for a rising proportion of national farmland and the value of crop production and marketed output. However, in other countries, especially those that are relatively densely populated, the data suggest that the number of medium-scale farms has grown relatively slowly or not at all, but we cannot tell with confidence whether this is a valid conclusion or an artifact of sampling designs that almost certainly under-report relatively large farms.

The causes and consequences of changing farm structure and the rise of medium-scale farms are discussed in Sections 4 and 5. Though the literature remains thin, emerging evidence indicates that medium-scale farms generate mostly positive spillover effects on smallholder farmers. In Section 6, we examine the characteristics of medium-scale farmers and the various pathways to becoming a medium-scale farmer. Section 7 examines how medium-scale farmers are acquiring their land and how these pathways differ from how small-scale farm household tend to acquire land. Section 8 reviews the evidence on changes in land tenure systems and security and how medium-scale farms may be indirectly influencing tenure systems. A summary of the main findings and policy implications of the study are presented in Section 9. In the process, we propose an updated typology of farms that reflects recent changes in the relative importance of different farm categories and sheds light on the heterogeneity found even among smallholder farms. Section 9 also addresses how land tenure security by members of local communities and vulnerable groups in particular may be enhanced even while evolving land institutions are encouraging market-based land transfers and the “commodification” of land in rural Africa.