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The impact of HIV/AIDS on agrarian systems depends on the structure of the farm sector (especially the smallholder sector), the labour-intensiveness of the farming system and the asset portfolio of smallholder farm households.

The adverse effects of HIV/AIDS on agriculture and rural development are manifested primarily as loss of labour supply, of on- and off-farm income and of assets. These can contribute to reduced productivity, yields and agricultural output. For example, in Zimbabwe, according to a survey conducted by the Zimbabwe Farmers' Union in 1997, agricultural output in communal areas declined by nearly 50% among households affected by AIDS in relation to households not affected by AIDS.[4] Maize production by smallholder farmers and commercial farms declined by 61% because of illness and death from AIDS.[5] Marketed output of cotton, vegetables, groundnut and sunflower crops were cut nearly in half, and cattle farming declined by almost a third (see Box 3).

Box 3: Impact of HIV/AIDS on communal agriculture in Zimbabwe





- 61%







Cattle Owned:


Source: Kwaramba P. The Socio-Economic Impact of HIV/AIDS on Communal Agricultural Production Systems in Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe Farmers' Union and Friederich Ebert Stiftung, 1997.

Factors determining the sensitivity of agriculture to labour loss resulting from AIDS include:[6]

a) the seasonality of the demand for labour;
b) the degree of specialisation by sex and age;
c) the inter-dependence of labour inputs;
d) economies of scale in labour; and
e) the substitutability of labour-saving technologies.

The combined loss of labour, income and assets is likely to increase food, nutrition and livelihood insecurity, deepen poverty and undermine the resilience and reversibility of household coping mechanisms among some households in the long term. Further, the magnitude of the scale of the epidemic in most countries in Eastern and Southern Africa is contributing to a number of structural changes in the smallholder sector, including:

a) Long-term changes in farming systems as household cultivation shifts from cash crops to subsistence crops and from labour-intensive to labour-extensive but often also less nutritious crops. It has been shown, for instance, that in Bukoba District, Tanzania, the intensely managed banana/coffee/bean farming system has been replaced by a labour-extensive, low-input cassava/sweet potato farming system. This change in cropping pattern is unlikely to reverse itself given the heavy investments required in terms of labour, cash, and time-all of which are in short supply in households affected by HIV/AIDS.[7] Evidence from Zambia shows that in the case of livestock farming, few farmers can afford to re-purchase a sizeable stock after having sold their animals, and even when they are able to do so, sustaining them is difficult given the paucity of veterinary services in the country.[8]

Figure 1: AIDS Impact on the Agricultural Labour Force in Eastern and Southern Africa, 1985-2020

Source: HIV/AIDS: A Threat to Food Security and Rural Development, FAO, 2000.

b) Changes in the age structure and quality of skilled and unskilled agricultural labour, in view of the growing number of elderly people and children who assume a greater role in farming and the fact that women are increasingly becoming responsible for on- and off-farm tasks previously performed by men. It is not known what the effects of the changes in the age structure and quality of the agricultural labour force will be.

These structural changes in smallholder agriculture are likely to contribute to increased malnutrition and an overall decline in the nutritional status of a growing number of resource-poor farmers, particularly women and children, with far-reaching consequences for the health and productivity of the agricultural labour force.

While HIV/AIDS may contribute to reduced agricultural production at household level, there are also examples of accelerated agricultural development in spite of AIDS. Uganda's Minister of Agriculture argued in 1999: "At one time, we feared AIDS might have a dramatic impact on agriculture, but it did not happen".[9] Instead, he indicated, Uganda has seen an impressive boost in agricultural production largely due to privatisation, better marketing, new cash crops and active farmers' associations.[10] While this assessment may accurately reflect developments at the macro level, it has been argued that it may not apply at the micro level. "Our agricultural boom does not translate into better food security for rural households", has argued Stella Neema, a researcher with the Institute of Social Research at Makerere University in Kampala.[11] In effect, UNICEF data show that 38% of children in Uganda were stunted and 40% of children under 4 years of age suffered from chronic malnutrition in 1995.[12]

In other words, there can be a discrepancy between the impact of AIDS on agricultural production at the macro level and household food and nutrition security at the micro level. The reason for this is the fact that AIDS is responsible for "a divergence in opportunities", according to Gary Howe, Director for East and Southern Africa of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). This divergence in opportunities he attributes to the fact that: "A large sector of the population [in Africa] has no access to the new crops and markets, coupled with an acute crisis of labour and [a] tremendous dependence of households on single women and the elderly."[13]

This dichotomy between the impact of HIV/AIDS on agricultural production at the macro level and on household food, nutrition and livelihood security at the micro level needs to be borne in mind when addressing the adverse effects of HIV/AIDS on agriculture and rural development and when designing rural development policies and programmes.

[4] Kwaramba P. The socio-economic impact of HIV/AIDS on communal agricultural production systems in Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe Farmers' Union
[5] ibid.
[6] Gillespie S. The potential impact of AIDS on food production systems in Central 1988.
[7] Rugalema G. Adult mortality as entitlement failure: AIDS and the crisis of rural livelihoods in a Tanzanian village, 1999, p. 149 - 150.
[8] Kamwanga J. et al. Disease, HIV/AIDS and capacity of the agriculture public sector in Zambia: working draft on impressions from the data on mortality and associated capacity implications, UNAIDS/UNDP, April, 2000, p. 4.
[9] Cited in Sayagues M., op. cit., p. 7.
[10] ibid.
[11] Stella Neema, Institute of Social Research, Makerere University, Kampala, cited in ibid., p. 9.
[12] ibid.
[13] Gary Howe, Director for Africa at IFAD, cited in ibid.

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