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Space, Markets and Employment in Agricultural Development


Weenen 2012, copyright Cyriaque Hakizimana

Agricultural development is widely regarded as key to food security and poverty reduction in many low and middle-income countries, including in Sub-Saharan Africa. However agriculture is only likely to contribute to sustainable and inclusive growth if agricultural productivity gains are matched by growing non-farm rural employment because, while some benefit from increased intensity or agricultural productivity, such changes tend to push the poor and vulnerable off the land and into unemployment. Hence employment-intensive rural growth cannot depend on agricultural activities alone, neither are urban and the formal economies able to adequately absorb displaced rural dwellers. This project examined issues of sustainability and inclusive growth, and sought to understand the relationship between agricultural development and the nature of the rural non-farm economy (RNFE). 

The impact of different patterns of agricultural growth on rural livelihoods and poverty is crucially dependent on the ability of the RNFE to create employment and other economic opportunities. A key conceptual and policy question therefore is whether a given path of agricultural development can stimulate the local non-farm economy. Through a careful investigation of the  nature of local multipliers linked to agricultural production, the project aimed to answer this question across three Southern African countries.

We've put the policy implications and findings upfront for those who want a quick overview, but for those with a more academic bent, feel free to first skip to the aimsresearch questions and methodology. If you are interested in specific outputs for each country, skip ahead to South Africa, Malawi and Zimbabwe.


Policy implications

The research findings have important implications for agricultural and economic policy:

  1. They suggest that agricultural policy should promote smallholder agriculture – not simply as a contribution to food security, but also as a source of employment, and as a hub for forward and backward linkages into the local economy.
  2. There is a strong case to be made for land reform to be more effectively oriented towards smallholder farmers who are not tightly integrated into spatially extensive, centralised, corporate value chains. In South Africa, land reform that is oriented towards smallholders is a key modality.
  3. Elsewhere, land and investment deals that create large-scale farming enterprises, externally owned and plugged into distant export markets are less likely to contribute positively to local employment growth and should not be supported in the mistaken belief that they do.
  4. Maximising the economic benefit from agricultural development and smallholder farming will require better support for local retail and informal markets, including in livestock (often disregarded by urban planners).
  5. Local planning, land use, zoning and anti-trust law and policy should be geared at protecting small informal markets and retailers from being swamped by large commercial agriculture and the intrusion of powerful corporate retailers into rural markets.


Research findings: country contexts and synthesis

Synthesis of cross-country findings

The studies showed significant differences in the nature of the spatial networks created in the three case study districts by forward and backward conditions of agriculture. Key differentiating characteristics of these networks were their density (the number of enterprise nodes and their clustering in particular areas), external connectedness (the degree to which they were linked to distant markets and economic actor), local embeddedness (the degree to which decisions within enterprises were subject to local influence or regulation, and power differentials (the degree of concentration or vertical integration between nodes resulting in differences in degree of control and agency).  

Crucially, the evidence suggests that external connectedness on its own is not enough to ensure that agricultural development benefits local economies. Clearly, the lack of external connections can be crippling. Without access to good markets, small farmers and local entrepreneurs are deprived of economic opportunity. But where farming is large in scale, where it is owned by external stakeholders, where input procurement is highly centralised, and where investment and consumption expenditure occurs outside the local district, agricultural development can be locally disembedded, creating few opportunities in the local non-farm economy. External linkages can also expose local entrepreneurs to competition from powerful and distant corporate players, undermining local multipliers and sucking money out of the district.  But where external connectedness occurs in dense local networks that are strongly socially embedded, the financial rewards from agricultural exports can circulate in the local economy. 

An overview of these findings can be found in the synthesis Policy Brief and in the OpEd Can agriculture in Africa sustain a nourishing rural non-farm economy These synthesis documents summarise the findings from each of the country studies in South Africa, Malawi, and Zimbabwe.

The outputs for each country include outputs created in the course of the study being undertaken, such as blogs, videos and photos, and media articles, as well as outputs created once the data had been analysed, including country research reports, policy briefs and news articles.


South Africa

The South African research was undertaken in the horticultural production district of Weenen in KwaZulu Natal, an area that is home to both large and small-scale commercial farmers. The research showed that the agricultural sector is crucial to those employed in it, but makes a small aggregate contribution to local employment, with a similarly modest impact on the local RNFE.

In South Africa input markets for both large- and small-scale farmers are dominated by a few powerful, vertically integrated companies with efficient and extensive supply lines, that provide little local employment. Most Weenen inhabitants (like those in many other rural South African towns) are threfore disconnected from the agricultural sector. Local jobs and livelihoods are instead sustained by public sector salaries and state cash transfers (‘social grants’). The local RNFE is better understood as linked into these ‘distributive’ circuits, rather than rooted in agriculture or primary production. 

The South African work also revealed the ambivalent role played by corporate supermarket chains elsewhere: they retail low-cost food, but they have profound displacement effects on the local productive economy. Corporate supermarkets decimate the local retail trade and squeeze out local producers, as their supply chains largely bypass the local economy.

We produced two blog posts: Agricultural development and the local: The case of South Africa; and Rural economies: It’s not only about farming

Media engagements include radio and television appearances, and an OpEd, Mismatch between policy and reality in agriculture

The below photo diary also gives a sense of the economic terrain in terms of local vs distant value chains:

The video Cultivating Unemployment critically analyses the constraints for rural development in South Africa.

The latest outputs from the South African team include a Policy Brief and a Research Report, freely available for download.



The Malawi-based emperical work was undertaken in Mchinji district in central Malawi in Mduwa and Mlonyeni. The dualistic nature of agriculture in Malawi, in which the smallholder and estate systems co-exist and operate at different scales, provides opportunities to understand the spatial articulation of linkages between farm and non-farm employment activities. Using detailed case studies of the smallholder and estate sectors, the research examined the roles different types of agriculture play in facilitating non-farm employment in the local economy.

In Malawi, smallholder and large scale estate agriculture differ in terms of their respective scales of operation, crops, patterns of employment and the extent to which their linkages (e.g. input supply, marketing and expenditure) extend outside of the local economy. In the estate sector larger-scale production, cash crops, and linkages to distant locales predominate. In contrast, smallholder farmers have comparatively ‘denser’ linkages to local labour markets, input and output supply networks. More of their expenditure is local, thereby stimulating higher levels of local non-farm employment. Smallholders’ locally-consumed horticultural crops also offer the promise of more local multipliers.

Outputs from Malawi included:the Malawi Research Update, the Malawi Country Report, and the Malawi Policy Brief.



The Zimbabwean research examined agriculture and its linkages in two areas marked by ‘resettlement’ of emerging small- and medium-scale farmers since the Fast-Track Land Reform of the early 2000s (Sukume et al. 2015). Sites in Mvurwi and Masvingo Districts were examined, focusing on a range of commodities including  tobacco, horticulture and beef.  In these resettlement areas, farmers follow very different pathways to commercialisation, and synergies with off-farm income and employment.

Downstream linkages to markets involve a large variety of smaller-scale buyers and emergent entrepreneurs, although patterns are commodity-dependent, such as the large institutional buyers for tobacco.  Input supply is dominated largely by established upstream enterprises, but there are smaller service providers such as local artisans and new entrants, including those providing ‘intermediate’ technology for small farmers.

Eight project blogs were created:

We've released a video series about the Zimbabwe case studies; the first in the series offers an overview Making Markets: Land Reform, Agriculture and New Local Economies in Zimbabwe:

The video series then zooms in on specific agricultural products (e.g. tobaccohorticulturecattle) and the livelihoods and economic impacts they are having on rural Zimbabwe:



The Zimbabwe country report and the Zimbabwe Policy Brief are also now available.



Having discssed the findings for each country, below we present technical details of how we undertook the case study research, across South Africa, Malawi and Zimbabwe.

Research questions and project focus

Weenen warehouse, 2012 copyright David Neves

The project examined the relationship between agriculture and the rural non-farm economy (RNFE) by conducting research in Malawi, South Africa and Zimbabwe. The enquiry was predicated on the notion that the ability of agricultural development to support local non-farm multipliers is based not only on the extent of growth in external ‘tradeables’ and the consequent growth in farmer incomes, it also depends on the scale and spatial configuration of agriculture’s forward and backward linkages. Support for local non-farm multipliers ultimately involves the nature and functioning of local institutions, and on the local political economy of agricultural investment and ownership.

The enquiry therefore sought to understand farm and non-farm livelihoods in each country-based research site, by paying attention to the organisation of markets, and functioning of agro-food value chains. The study examined what kinds of agricultural development (scale, capital intensity, value chain governance, local political and administrative institutions) best support inclusive and employment-intensive economic growth. Along with the spatial, economic and institutional links that connect agricultural and non-farm employment, we explored the resultant implications for employment, poverty, vulnerability, and food security. 

Approach and research methods 

The study drew on both qualitative and quantitative inquiry and developed a novel combination of methodological tools. Traditional approaches such as Social Accounting Matrices, often used to understand forward and backward linkages, were unsuitable for investigating local linkages at the regional scale proposed by the study. Instead quantitative investigation of flows between sectors, required the research team to engage in detailed qualitative exploration of the spatial configuration of socio-economic networks by ‘following the money’ upstream and downstream from farming enterprises and households in the selected rural districts. By ‘following the money’, we could make detailed maps and accounts of backward and forward linkages, which were linked to a detailed accounts of local contexts.

Policy engagement aims and target audience

The project sought to increase agricultural development policymakers’ awareness and understanding of the importance of non-farm employment for rural development. By highlighting the differential impacts on non-farm employment of various agricultural development paths, the study put broad-based and employment-rich growth at the centre of the agricultural development agenda, in a context where employment is often a secondary concern of much agricultural policy.

The project furthemore engaged with end-users and policy makers in government, regional bodies, donor agencies, and other implementing and policy-making bodies to explore and disseminate the research findings.  This included an inception workshop in Johannesburg (February 2013) and a summative dissemination workshop (in mid 2015) with a number of high profile regional policymakers.


Research Team

  • Prof Andries Du Toit is the Principal Investigator (PI).
  • Dr Ian Scoones (based Institute for Development Studies in Sussex, UK) and Prof Ben Cousins are the co-PIs.
  • David Neves ( is the overall project manager at PLAAS, and heads up the South African team.
  • Dr Ephraim Chirwa (based at the University of Malawi), and Dr Chrispen Sukume (Zimbabwe) will head up their respective country based work. 



DFID-ESRC Growth Research Programme





Research jointly supported by ESRC and DFID