Topic Guide: Stepping out of agriculture

This guide discusses how people in smallholder farming households leave agriculture for employment that offers better returns


In low-income countries, rural areas are currently home to the majority of households. Most households in these rural areas are engaged in small-scale agriculture. As economies grow and countries develop it is expected that some households will specialise in farming, but that many others will move out – or ‘step out’ – of farming. Household members will take up work in the rural non-farm economy (RNFE) or migrate to towns and cities.

This Topic Guide is about stepping out, about how people in smallholder farming households leave agriculture for employment that offers better returns. The Guide is organised as follows:

  • Section 2 presents a broad schema of development transformations and transitions as countries move from low to higher income status. It considers the implications, and the questions these transformations and transitions prompt
  • Section 3 looks at the rural non-farm economy (RNFE) – its nature, the opportunities it offers, and what affects growth rates and patterns
  • Section 4 deals with migration and how this can produce positive outcomes
  • Section 5 examines the links between urban and rural areas and the influence of these links on the potential for rural non-farm activities as well as for migration out of rural areas. It also reviews urban hierarchies and the different opportunities offered by metropolitan and secondary cities, since these affect rural-urban links
  • Section 6 looks at the social implications, including for gender relations, of the changes that may take place
  • Section 7 summarises the lessons for DFID advisers.

This Topic Guide has been produced by the Overseas Development Institute with the assistance of the UK Department for International Development (DFID), contracted through the Climate, Environment, Infrastructure and Livelihoods Professional Evidence and Applied Knowledge Services (CEIL PEAKS) programme, jointly managed by DAI (which incorporates HTSPE Limited) and IMC Worldwide Limited.


Topic Guide: Stepping out of agriculture

Published 1 January 2015