Subsistence farming is the most widely used method of agricultural farming in sub-Saharan Africa, and the majority of Africa’s rural poor depend on their homegrown produce for survival.
By default, subsistence farming incorporates a number of sustainable farming methods (such as using natural methods of pest control). But more needs to be done to take these farms from a level of subsistence to a greater level of sustainability.
What is subsistence farming?
Subsistence farming is when one family or group grow only enough to feed themselves. There’s generally not enough to sell or trade; if there is any surplus, the family will tend to store it until needed.
What are the benefits of subsistence farming?
- Allows food to be produced with very little cost in rural areas.
- Lessens the need to find transportation to a city.
- Creates the opportunity to continue living in a rural village where housing and land are more affordable.
- The family is self-sufficient in terms of food.
- Since subsistence farmers don’t have access to pesticides and industrial farming methods, subsistence farming is often less draining on the environment.
What are the threats?
- Susceptible to climate change – drought and flooding can severely affect a farmer’s crop, and thus their food source.
- No profit generated.
- Time spent farming could be spent working for an income.
- Unless subsistence farming switches to a semi-commercial model, it will continue to prevent people from generating income.
How can subsistence farming be made more sustainable?
By nature and necessity, many of the principals behind subsistence farming echo those of sustainable farming. But for subsistence farming to become more sustainable, it needs to be more resilient and economically profitable. Encouraging farmers to pursue the sustainable intensification of production through the use of improved inputs can allow them to produce a surplus, which then becomes an income-generator and increases the farm’s sustainability.
Although subsistence farmers have a wealth of knowledge after generations of subsistence farming, there’s scope to build on this learning in order to teach them how to farm more intensively, while still farming sustainably. Methods such as crop rotation, rotational grazing and monitoring of soil health can be incorporated into subsistence farming to help yield better long-term results. And by learning to monitor and manage their crops more effectively, subsistence farmers have the opportunity to turn their food source into a livelihood.