Farm scale as a driver of agricultural development in the Kenyan Rift Valley

Related GLP Member: Niels Debonne, Jasper van Vliet, Peter Verburg


  • We compare medium-scale farms (MSF) with small-scale farms (SSF) in the Kenyan Rift Valley.
  • MSF are not a new phenomenon, and most MSF have incrementally increased their farm size.
  • On average, MSF produce more cash crops for non-local markets and use less labor.
  • Farms do not differ in their average crop yields, but have different crop mixes.
  • Average figures obfuscate large diversities within farm-size categories.


Farming in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) is historically dominated by small-scale farms (SSFs), but evidence suggests that medium-scale farms (MSFs) are becoming increasingly prominent. These MSFs are often portrayed as entrepreneurial innovators, bringing dynamism and commercialization to SSA agriculture without displaying the negative features of land grabbing processes. However, there is little empirical evidence supporting these claims. We deployed a survey of 319 farmers covering a wide range of sizes in the Kenyan Rift Valley. Results show that MSFs are not a new phenomenon in the area, and are mostly farms that incrementally increased in size by buying or renting additional land. Furthermore, we find no differences in yields for various crop types between SSFs and MSFs. On average, MSFs use a higher share of their land for grazing, and have more dairy cattle per farm but less per hectare. The average MSF has a higher propensity to grow cash crops and serve non-local markets than the average SSF, and they employ significantly fewer people per hectare. However, within-category heterogeneity is high for all investigated dimensions, while past decision-making and future aspirations reveal entrepreneurship to occur in all farm size categories. We conclude that only a subset of all MSFs can be characterized as entrepreneurial, while these qualities can also be attached to many SSFs. Hence, we find that farm scale is an imperfect proxy to gauge the characteristics of a farm system, and presenting MSFs as a developmental panacea for SSA's rural areas is therefore unwarranted.

Keywords: Rural development; Africa; Farm size; Medium-scale farms; Smallholders; Agricultural transition

Summary of Findings

The outlook on African agricultural development is closely entangled with the type of farms and farmers involved. Amidst high-profile processes, such as large-scale land acquisition or structural transformations, recent literature has identified the rise of a new class of farms that so far remained under the radar: medium-scale farms. These farms are larger in size than what is usual in their immediate context, yet their size remains well below the more eye-catching large-scale land acquisitions. According to some studies, they constitute the “light” version of land grabbing, and they are driven by urban-based elites leveraging power imbalances in often customarily governed areas. In other studies, a picture of entrepreneurial farmers appears, who deliver much-needed innovation and dynamism to regions characterized by often disappointingly stagnant development.

Recognizing that such claims have only limited empirical backing, we conducted a tailored survey in which we compare small-, medium-, and large-scale farms (thresholds at 5 and 50 hectares) in the Kenyan Rift Valley. Contrary to earlier studies, our systematic sampling frame allowed us to compare farm scale categories along dimensions of productivity, market access, labor, land tenure, and more. Our findings suggest that the qualities attached to medium-scale farms are not as clear-cut as they are often made out to be. They did not arrive recently, they are not more or less productive, and their owners are mostly small farmers who incrementally grew their farm. They are more likely to produce cash crops for non-local markets, but such characteristics are far from rare among smallholders. We therefore conclude that, because qualities of entrepreneurship and dynamism, or lack thereof, are distributed across both small-, medium-, and large-scale farms, claims made concerning the role and merits of any farm size category are painted with too broad of a brush.