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Space, Markets and Employment in Agricultural Development


Weenen 2012, copyright Cyriaque HakizimanaAgricultural development is key to food security and poverty reduction in much of the developing world, including Sub-Saharan Africa.  However agriculture is only likely to contribute to sustainable and intensive growth if productivity gains on the ground are matched by growth in non-farm employment.  Rural dwellers are unable to benefit from agricultural development if they are landless, uninvolved in agricultural production, and as they are increasingly displaced by agricultural development.  Therefore rural non-farm employment - linking non-farm employment and agricultural development - plays a vital role in ensuring broad-based, inclusive and sustainable growth.  Despite this, the impact of different patterns of agricultural growth on rural livelihoods and poverty are often poorly understood.  Furthermore, supporting non-farm employment is often neither an explicit nor a prominent concern of much agricultural policy.

This project is building awareness of the relationship between farm and non-farm activities in rural economies. It examines the institutional and spatial articulation of markets, settlements and employment in three Southern African countries, to create a clearer picture of how agriculture can support a diverse local economics and broad based economic growth. The project findings have been carefully disseminated and workshopped with relevant groups of stakeholders.

The focus of the research

Weenen warehouse, 2012 copyright David NevesThe project investigated the spatial and institutional links between agricultural development and non-farm employment in rural sites in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Malawi. The project aimed to

  1. capture data about the spatial, economic and institutional links that connect agricultural development and non-farm employment, including the implications for employment, poverty, vulnerability and food security.
  2. build an understanding of farm and non-farm livelihoods, by paying attention to the organisation of markets, and functioning of agro-food value chains.
  3. understand what kinds of agricultural development (scale, capital intensity, value chain governance, local political and administrative institutions) best support inclusive and employment intensive economic growth.
  4. develop innovative research methodologies for capturing and mapping the links between agricultural and non-farm employment


The study drew on both qualitative and quantitative inquiry and developed new methodological tools.  It focused on carefully mapping actual resource flows between economic actors, and ‘following the money’, the upstream and downstream resource flows that link households and enterprise to each other. This enabled the research to develop a ‘map’ of social and economic networks, analysed using software for mapping social networks.  In an inversion of the usual relationship between qualitative and quantitative inquiry, the second phase of the study consisted of a survey conducted within the initially studied households and enterprises, in order to measure impacts on employment, incomes and food security. 

Starting out: A pilot study from South Africa

In the South Africa pilot study undertaken in Weenen district of the KZN midlands researchers piloted the methodology. Limiting themselves to several focal household-enterprises, they examined the upstream and downstream in relation to a range of common field crops. They documented the synergies within a single household-enterprise, and followed the value chain, noting the inputs and mapping the sequence of production, distribution, wholeselling and retail. These networks where not only intertwinned with various non-farm activities, but saw agricultural production supply local hawkers and more distant retailers. Links were market driven, but also highly influenced by individual and familial histories, along with trading alliances and networks of ethnic and religious solidarity.

See the TRAILER for the video, which highlights key issues to be investigated in this case study.

Next step: Consultation

On 14 February 2013 we shared the research concept with 30 regional policymakers and asked for input on ways to take the research forward. You can read more about the research on our blog, Rural economies: It's not only about farming. Following on from the workshop, we undertook field research in all our case study sites.


Field work

South Africa

In May 2013, field work commenced in Weenen, South Africa. Initial findings from this field research point to the ambivalent role played by the presence of the corporate supermarket chains elsewhere: they retail low-cost food, but they have profound displacement effects on the local productive economy. These corporate supermarkets decimate the local retail trade and squeeze out local producers, as their supply chains largely bypass the local economy. Small-scale farmers in particular, struggle to enter these supply chains. Hence much of the spending power of the poor, (from some paid employment, remittances and, increasingly, state cash transfers) arrives in armoured vans is spent and swiftly repatriated elsewhere. It thereby generates few local economic multipliers. Initial findings are published in a blog post: Agricultural development and the local: the case of South Africa. The below photo diary also gives a sense of the economic terrain in terms of local vs distant value chains, and the video Cultivating Unemployment critically analyses the constraints for rural development in South Africa. The latest outputs from the South African team are a Policy Brief and a Research Report, freely available for download.


In June 2013 field work commenced in Mchinji district in central Malawi in two Traditional Authorities, Mduwa and Mlonyeni, and in Zimbabwe in Masvingo and Mazoe. Although the agricultural system in Malawi is dualistic, smallholder and estate sectors, the agricultural activities in the survey areas are dominated by smallholder farmers growing food and cash crops. Smallholder farmers have small land holdings of not more than 3ha which are usually fragmented into several plots under the customary land tenure system.Data analysis shows that smallholder agricultural development in the areas generate or supports non-farm employment within the local economy, even when these links are traced up to the third level. In addition, most inputs are sourced within the local economy and expenditures by smallholder farmers and their linked households are also spent within the local economy, thereby having non-farm employment effects the local economy. Download the Malawi Research Update, the Malawi Country Report, and the Malawi Policy Brief.


Cattle farming was found to create employment for aggregators and agents in Masvingo, with production serving markets in Harare and Manicaland, creating retail and value distribution outside of Masvingo Province. On the other hand, vegetable production in Masvingo, largely remains within Masvingo, although also creating employment in supermarkets that source vegetables locally. Tabacco trading in Mazoe does not create many local links as it is traded in Harare auction houses, however, tabacco farming brings in significant income into the district, thus injecting liquidity into the local market. Maize and bean production in Mazoe create many jobs for agents and bulk buyers. Download the complete Zimbabwe Research Update and read more about the thriving Masvingo beef trade case studies and the rise of informal trade and butcheries in Masvingo, abattoirs and the Masvingo meat trade and the complexities of rural cattle marketing. New data is also pointing to pig production as a small, specialised but evolving area of development, and poultry production taking off in a big way, alongside new horticultural developments as a result of new irrigation possibilities.

The Zimbabwe case study analysis also explored options for financing agriculture in Zimbabwe, given that one of the repeated complaints of farmers on the new resettlements is the lack of access to finance. You can read more about the financing options in Access to $1000 credit: would this help unleash agricultural commercialisation in Zimbabwe?

In December 2014, 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. tobacco, horticulture, cattle) 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.

Project aims and target audience

The project aims to increase the awareness and understanding of agricultural development policymakers about 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 aims to put broad-based and employment-rich growth at the centre of the agricultural development agenda.

The study highlighs the central role of the spatial organisation of links, networks and institutions in shaping the employment character of the rural non-farm economy.  The study helped to identify guidelines (relating to the mix of farm scales, patterns of spatial integration and the design of planning frameworks) that can promote employment-rich growth in rural areas, so as to enable policymakers and planners (both at high level policy and those officials tasked with in implementation) to find practical answers to rural development challenges.

The project engaged with end-users and policy makers in government, regional bodies, donor agencies and other implementing and policy making bodies to explore and disseminated the implications of the research findings. 

Are you are relevant policy maker, user or interest group member? 

Please join our mailing list by selecting to receive updates about the project on our comprehensive mailing list form.


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