A griculture is an inherently risky economic activity. A large array of uncontrollable elements can affect output production and prices, resulting in highly variable economic returns to farm households. In developing countries, farmers also lack access to both modern instruments of risk management—such as agricultural insurance, futures contracts, or guarantee funds—and ex post emergency government assistance. Such farmers rely on different “traditional” coping strategies and risk-mitigation techniques, but most of these are inefficient. Formal and semiformal arrangements—such as contract farming, joint-liability lending, and value-chain integration—have arisen in recent decades, but they too are limited and can be very context sensitive. One consequence of inadequate overall financial risk management is that farmers in general face constrained access to formal finance. The smaller the net worth of the farm household, the worse the degree of exclusion.
Formal lenders avoid financing agriculture for a host of reasons: high cost of service delivery, information asymmetries, lack of branch networks, perceptions of low profitability in agriculture, lack of collateral, high levels of rural poverty, or low levels of farmer education and financial literacy. But, predominantly, bank managers around the world say they will not finance agriculture because of the high degree of uncontrolled production and price risk that confronts the sector. A farmer can be an able and diligent manager with an excellent reputation for repayment, guaranteed access to a market, and high-quality technical assistance, but an unexpected drought or flood can force him or her to involuntarily default. In emerging countries with fair to high levels of agricultural market and trade integration, large commercial farmers may escape this predicament because they have the ability to purchase insurance, engage in price hedging, obtain financing overseas, or liquidate assets quickly in the event of a default. Consequently, formal lenders tend to overemphasize the use of immoveable collateral as the primary buffer against default risk, which means they provide services to a limited segment of the farm population. Small- and medium-sized farmers, who constitute the vast majority of farm operators, often do not have secured-title land, which is the preferred type of collateral; if they do, its value may be insufficient to cover the loan in question. Even if farmers have sufficient titled land to collateralize loans, they may refuse low-interest formal loans and assume high-interest informal ones that have no collateral requirements instead. They may also use savings to finance agricultural production because they are averse to risking their most prized possession—land. The result is limited supply or access to formal agricultural financing, even though much of the population of Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia is rural and depends on agriculture and livestock rearing for their main livelihood activities.
This brief is one of series on innovations in rural and agriculture finance.