The governance pyramid for smallholder agriculture has three fundamental levels: local, national (government, private sector, civil society) and global levels (Dasgupta and Roy, 2011). Collectively, institutions at these three levels interact with farmers and are supposed to create an enabling environment for the efficient functioning of (smallholder) agricultural systems.
Smallholder farmers deal more directly with local level institutions than national or global ones. Depending on the country, important local governance agencies are traditional authorities or chieftaincy institutions. In most parts of sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), traditional authorities (including family heads) are the custodians of land from whom land is acquired for farming. Children in a family may inherit part of the land belonging to their parents (mostly fathers) while outsiders to the comunity will need express permission from the requisite traditional authorities to exploit land. In most cases, agricultural land disputes are settled by this institution based on traditional law. However, previous studies have hinted at the detrimental effects of traditional or customary law on agricultural investment and development due to lack of tenure security (Gavian and Fafchamps, 1996). Consequently, several governments and donor organizations have, in the last few decades, rolled out programs to formalize land registration and certification to improve tenure security (Deininger et al., 2015). The formal registration processes still take into consideration aspects of customary and traditional law (Hagos, 2012).
Farmer groups (e.g., cooperatives, networks, farm franchises or associations) are another important local level institution from which smallholder farmers derive support in crop and livestock production. These groups, which farmers join at their own choice, make it easier for their members to access different kinds of support including financial, labor, on farm inputs and outputs, and management skills (e.g., through knowledge sharing) (AGRA, 2013; Ortmann and King, 2007). Farmer groups often have their own set up of rules to which all members must adhere. These groups may also help farmers to market their produce after harvest (AGRA, 2013). Microfinance and other private companies that organize farm inputs (e.g., seeds, fertilizers, tools) may want to deal directly with farmer groups instead of individual farmers (Bernard and Spielman, 2009).
Governance structures at the national level are controlled by governments. Public institutions such as ministries, agencies and departments have been set up by governments to oversee, in a decentralized manner, the governance and legal aspects of smallholder agriculture. In most countries, these responsibilities are undertaken by a ministry for food and agricultural production, although other ministries, e.g., in irrigation, water resource management and local government and rural development, may have overlapping responsibilities with respect to food production (Dasgupta and Roy, 2011). Food and agricultural ministries ensure that the right environment is created for all calibers of farmers (including smallholders) to operate. They generate the relevant data (e.g., agricultural statistics) that, in the ideal case, inform the agricultural policies that direct agricultural development of a country. National policies on access to land, finance, markets (local and international) and farm inputs are spearheaded by such ministries and departments. Additionally, the provision of farm management skills and knowledge through extension services to farmers is facilitated at the national level by government ministries. They liaise with research institutions and other ministries, departments and agencies to provide for the requisite regulatory framework of agricultural development. However, most ministries in developing countries are unable to provide the required regulatory framework and administrative support to farmers due to poor staffing, inadequate logistics and financing and weak institutional structure.
Global governance structures consists of a wide range of international public, private, and civil institutions that aim to foster cooperation, pool resources, resolve conflicts and seek consensus and collective action in a world of interdependent actors (Dasgupta and Roy, 2011). Although they form part of the global agricultural force, smallholder farmers are not directly connected with such global governance structures, although their livelihoods may be impacted by global forces. For example, smallholder cotton and cocoa farmers in West Africa have little influence on the global market forces that control the prices of these commodities (Baffes, 2005; Jacks et al., 2011).