FF9B supermarket Mota photo

Thabang Mota, 55, grows spinach around his house in Tsenola, Lesotho. He is one of a few small farmers working to supply supermarkets, selling 160 heads of spinach a day at 42 cents each. He hopes to build a hothouse so he can grow spinach year-round. Gretchen L. Wilson/Homelands Productions

Today on American Public Media’s Marketplace, I explore whether the rapid expansion of supermarket chains across sub-Saharan Africa is an opportunity or a curse for the continent’s small-scale farmers.  

I had done a little research before I headed out to Zambia, Lesotho and South Africa to report this story, and I expected farmers to see the supermarkets as Goliaths. I thought I’d hear rants about the barriers the companies impose and their struggles to partner with them.

Instead, most of the farmers I met had far more pressing things to worry about than jockeying for a place on supermarket shelves. While some had found success providing produce to supermarkets, most had concluded that it was hardly worth trying. They would struggle to meet the quantity and quality standards. Their apples would be too scrawny, their potatoes too small. Even if they started supplying supermarkets with beautiful cabbages or peaches, they told me, commercial farms would oust them as soon as there were a few weeks of bad weather.

Agricultural experts often divide small farmers’ challenges into two spheres: production snags and marketing constraints. The farmers I met said they face hurdles in both areas, and until those issues are resolved, they won’t even approach supermarkets.

For example, small-scale farmers often can’t get credit from banks, and many don’t have the cash for new seeds or fertilizer. Others need irrigation systems or greenhouses. Some are constrained by archaic land tenure laws that make it impossible to lease tracts. Or they have leased land and have spent years cultivating it, when suddenly the landowner decides he wants it back ­– and the farmers have no legal recourse.

Although farming is crucial to the food security and economies of many African countries, a number of small farmers told me governments are doing too little to help.

“The acquisition of agricultural land is the biggest problem for fruit and vegetable farmers in Lesotho,” said Thabang Buti, a dairy and vegetable farmer. “People who do have means to produce do not have access to land. The government needs to make policies to lease land to people serious about production.”

One Zambian farmer I spoke with added that government corruption and other business risks, including the potential theft of farming assets such as trucks and tractors, kept her from scaling up her small business.

Then there are the marketing challenges. Farmers say it can be an obstacle course to transport their goods to any market, even the informal ones that are still important players in Africa’s market chains. With poor roads and no refrigeration, the challenge often is getting their produce to consumers before it rots in the field or on the side of the road.

Morero Sehlabane lives 80 miles from Lesotho’s capital, Maseru, and for years, he watched trucks full of cabbage being imported across the border from South Africa. So one year, he saved enough money and grew 250,000 heads of cabbage.

“My area of Lesotho wasn’t big enough to absorb my production in time. Within a week, it was spoiled,” Sehlabane said. Other farmers shared heartbreaking stories of feeding their rotten produce to sheep or dumping it in abandoned fields.

Most farmers I spoke with said they need stronger advocates. Tseliso Tsenoli, a dairy and vegetable farmer in Lesotho, has about 30 cows. Every day, he delivers gallons of milk to a centralized collection facility. It’s then pasteurized and packaged in South Africa before being imported back into Lesotho. He says negotiating the price they get has been a nonstarter.

“We farmers have complained to government, but it’s all in vain,” he said. “To the extent that we cannot participate in the value chain, we can never be commercial. Consequently, we cannot afford to scale up production. I myself cannot earn enough profit in a year to buy two new dairy cows to add to my herd.”

So most small farmers I met don’t see supermarkets as the bad guys. They see them as opportunities … way down the road. For now, they want governments, businesses and farmers unions to help them get off the ground by representing their interests. Meanwhile, the agribusinesses and commercial farms are deepening their relationships with the retail giants. By the time small farmers are ready to compete, it might be too late.

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Gretchen L. Wilson

Gretchen L. Wilson is a freelance journalist who covers globalization and global inequalities, economic development, and social entrepreneurship. Since 2004, she has reported from southern and eastern Africa for American Public Media’s Marketplace. Her reports also have been featured on CBC News, France 24, the Los Angeles Times, The Daily Beast, PRI’s The World, Slate and IRIN news, and she has been a regular news analyst for CNBC Africa.

Gretchen is co-author, with Beulah Thumbadoo, of the book “From Dust to Diamonds: Stories of South African Social Entrepreneurs,” which profiles innovative civil society leaders in South Africa. Prior to becoming a journalist, she was a founder and organizer of the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers, the first labor union for “new economy” workers in the United States.

Gretchen holds a master’s degree in journalism from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a bachelor’s degree in sociology and multiethnic studies from Bard College. A native of the Pacific Northwest, Gretchen lives in Johannesburg, South Africa, with her husband and two small children and spends her spare time reading, practicing new words in Zulu and wiping baby food off the floor.