Contract farming in the developing world: a political economy approach



A new special issue in the Journal of Agrarian Change (Vol. 22, Issue 1) takes stock of critical developments in the political economy of contract farming on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of Living under Contract: Contract Farming and Agrarian Transformation in Sub-Saharan Africa edited by Peter Little and Michael Watts and published in 1994. As editors of the special issue, our objective was to re-engage with the book’s path-breaking contributions to a political economy approach but also to consolidate on recent developments and emerging themes in the study of contract farming in the context of global uneven development.

Living Under Contract marked one of the key contributions to critical agrarian scholarship on contract farming. The book’s contributors used a political economy approach to analyse contract farming in Sub-Saharan Africa within the broader processes of restructuring of the global agri-food system. Collectively, they demonstrated how contract farming was used by global and national capitals to gain inexpensive access to labour and land and to shift production and pricing risks onto contract farmers. Additionally, they emphasized the diversity of contract farming relations and their contingency upon historical, political and social processes.

The idea for this Special Issue had its origins in a workshop that was meant to take place in May 2020 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Living under Contract by bringing together critical scholarship on contract farming in low- and middle-income countries and to build a network of critical contract farming scholars. Unfortunately, the spread of COVID-19 and associated travel restrictions led to the postponement of the workshop to 2022. Nevertheless, participants and organizers decided to build on the momentum towards the workshop to put together a special issue on critical engagements with contract farming.

The collection consists of nine contributions on the political economy of contract farming, diverse both in terms of analytical approaches and geographic focus (including debates on labour regimes, coevolutionary processes and everyday forms of resistance, among other, as well as case studies in Indonesia, Tanzania, Philippines, Uganda, China, Zimbabwe, Laos, India and Mozambique). In particular, the contributions in the special issue address seven core themes of contract farming in the global economy: i) contract farming as a form of global value chain organization and its place in value chain-oriented analysis and policy initiatives, ii) the changing role of states, national and subnational, in the (de)regulation of outgrower schemes, iii) the expanded role of intermediaries like informal traders and brokers; iv) the politics of resistance and agency, v) the implications of contract farming in terms of the agrarian question of land and vi) labour, and vii) the power dynamics in contract farming schemes.

Through an exploration of these themes, the special issue updates and reaffirms the critical political economy approach pioneered by Living under Contract by restating the importance of the case study approach to understand the historical contingency of different experiences with contract farming, its relationship to different land and labour regimes, and its embeddedness in the broader political economy, social and cultural contexts. By pushing forward the horizon of research on contract farming in this way, this collection also addresses critical questions in agrarian political economy that are of interest to the readers of the Journal of Agrarian Change: Does contract farming accelerate or reshape the capitalist penetration of the countryside? What are the implications over time for smallholder livelihoods, and for processes of social differentiation and class formation? And what are the implications for rural politics and political struggles from below?

Much remains to be done to develop a distinct contract farming research agenda within critical agrarian studies even beyond this special issue, however. In our editorial introduction, we point to some directions for future research, for instance:

  • the interaction between precarity and social differentiation;
  • the complex dynamics of labour exploitation within and between households, along lines of class, gender and generation;
  • the ecological implications of contract farming schemes and developing political ecology approaches.

We launched the special issue in a virtual workshop on December 10, 2021, attended by special issue contributors as well as other interested scholars. Together we hope to establish a diverse collaborative network of critical contract farming scholars that would engage in cross-country analyses of contract farming schemes (also in Latin America and North Africa where such an approach has rarely been applied), involvement with progressive activists across different contexts and policy translation of key findings, among others, as part of its agenda.

We hope the readers of the special issue find it stimulating in advancing their own research agendas and we look forward to critical engagement with the contributions here.


Read the full introduction to the special issue by the editors here.

Read the full special issue here: free access for three months.

Photo credit: ILO Asia-Pacific