The crop production process begins with land acquisition for farming activities. In many parts of the developing world, smallholder farmers that farm in their village/town obtain land rights through traditional authorities (chiefs or family heads) who are often the custodians of the land. Children (mostly male) receive a portion of their father’s land as inheritance, on which they farm with their families. Strangers or immigrants may rent land for farming or enter into an arrangement with a land owner, whereby the production of the field is shared among them in a pre-agreed manner (Delville et al., 2002). In some instances, the immigrant may be permitted to purchase the land (Delville et al., 2002). Security of tenure is an important issue for smallholder farmers. It is well-known that security of tenure is a precondition for farmers to invest in new technology (Hagos, 2012; Hayes et al., 1997). In other words, farmers are sceptical to invest in their farms if they are not sure of the security of their tenure.
Staple crops that are cultivated in smallholder regions include cereals such as millet, sorghum, maize and rice, leguminous crops such as beans, groundnuts and cowpea, tubers/roots such as yam, cassava and potato. Non-food crops include fibres such as cotton. These crops are by default cultivated during the rainy season as agriculture is normally rainfed in most smallholder systems. According to Diao et al. (2012), productivity of cereals and starchy tubers/roots in Africa is vital as these provide two-thirds of the total energy intake of the people on the continent. Depending on variety, crops grow over a period of 120 to 180 days before reaching maturity. The growth cycle and phenological stages include: germination, leaf development, tillering, inflorescence emergence, flowering, fruiting, maturity, senescence and harvesting.
Rainfall is the main source of water in the crop production process, with little or no supplemental irrigation being applied during the crop season. Consequently, long dry spells during the season lead to crop failure and loss of food and revenue. Recent research has attested to the benefits of supplemental irrigation to improve crop productivity (Oweis and Hachum, 2009). Nonetheless, irrigation facilities are woefully inadequate in many smallholder regions. The development of irrigation systems is one key strategy to consider in raising income in farmer households.
Generally, millet and sorghum are considered drought-resistant and are cultivated by many poor farmers without application of inorganic fertilizer, although most farmers do apply manure. Maize, rice and cotton normally require fertilizer application. In West Africa, governments of cotton-producing countries, to stimulate higher production of cotton, supply cotton growers with farm inputs such as seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides in the beginning of the season. The harvested cotton is bought by the government and the cost of any supplied inputs are subtracted from the total harvest value amount, with the net gain paid out to the farmer.
Pests and diseases are important problems in the crop production process (ASCH, 2015; Harvey et al., 2014). This is partly due to the inability of farmers to purchase relevant and adequate pesticides and herbicides for their farms during the season. In addition, lack of labor leads to poorly maintained farms, and increased susceptibility to pests. Common pests, for instance in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) include army worms, grain moths, beetles, weevils, rootworms, striga, stem and ear borers (IITA). Common diseases include downy mildew, maize streak virus (MSV), leaf blight, stalk and ear rots and rust. In the case of drought-resistant crops such as millet and sorghum, pests and diseases are often a common cause of crop failure.
Crops are harvested immediately after maturity or are left to stand for a while before harvesting. Farmers may leave behind certain crops on the field after maturity (1) for purposes of drying, and/or (2) due to lack of labor for harvesting or because of unavailable storage facilities. Many smallholders process their produce into food for household consumption, while a minority sell their produce on the market. For example, in most of SSA, millet and sorghum are processed into flour for household consumption (Taylor et al., 2014). Sorghum is also often brewed into a local beer (Djameh et al., 2015). Groundnuts are processed into a paste which is often used for preparing soup or it is fried/roasted and eaten as a snack. Maize, the most common staple food in many places, is processed into flour or dough and as such is used for a wide variety of foods. Rice is traditionally processed by beating it in a sack and later sieving it, or by running it through a rice mill.