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[MONTPELLIER, FRANCE] Smallholder farmers must become more entrepreneurial if food security is to be achieved, a key meeting on agricultural research heard yesterday (28 March).

Commercialisation of agriculture is not just about large international markets but also about vibrant and competitive local markets, according to Kanayo Nwanze, president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development and former director-general of the Africa Rice Center.

"Farming — irrespective of size and scale — must be considered as business," he told the first Global Conference on Agricultural Research for Development (GCARD) in Montpellier, France (see Global summit seeks to transform agricultural research).

"We must think of the commercialisation of agriculture not just as the large commercial farms that feed the European Union and the United States but transforming smallholder farmers into commercial, local entrepreneurs that feed local demand. That is where you must stem cheap food coming into the country."

The key to creating such local markets is government investment in rural development to provide roads and storage facilities, he said.

"Why is China such a success story?" he asked. "Because it continues to invest in rural development and in creating a demand for local markets."

There are 500 million small farms worldwide, Nwanze added. Eighty-five per cent of them occupy fewer  than two hectares — in Africa and Asia they often take up less than half a hectare. Yet these millions of small-scale farmers control 20 per cent of the global food trade.

"How can you talk about transforming and solving food security without investing in small farmers and making them competitive in their own environments?" he asked.

"When farmers begin to make money, they start to invest, and that's when they begin to use your technologies and want to buy fertiliser and improve their small irrigation schemes."

"We must help them demand [the] new technologies that we produce and can only do that by creating a local domestic market incentive," he said.

Gebisa Ejeta, 2009 World Food Prize winner and a professor at Purdue University, United States, told SciDev.Net: "I think farmers [are] already entrepreneurs. There are not really many farmers who just produce for home use."

But to make them effective entrepreneurs, Ejeta said, governments need to build an appetite for science and technology, particularly science and technology that will lead to "... increased production or unique products that would potentially have economic value" .

Ejeta added that policymakers should have respect for science and the role it plays as a vehicle of change. They should also appreciate the importance of making connections between the new technology and users of that technology. And the best way to link technology with its users — in this case, farmers — is to create opportunity at the end for farmers (see SciDev.Net's blog post Three's company?).