Feed the Future
This project is part of the U.S. Government's global hunger and food security initiative.

What’s in a Name? From Off-Farm to Non-Farm: Weeding Through Alternative Livelihoods Definitions

The global world of work is inherently complex, but defining its many layers and variations shouldn’t be so. Yet, from ‘formal work’ to the ‘informal economy,’ ‘self-employment’ to ‘entrepreneurship,’ and ‘off-farm’ to ‘non-farm’ livelihoods, terminology can be confusing. The blurred lines of income classification can be even more challenging within food security initiatives that operate in unpredictable environments, where constantly shifting work opportunities within agriculture and beyond are the norm. At the same time, labor preferences are evolving for populations around the world, with many job-seekers, youth especially, trending towards multiple income streams rather than one steady job. How we define ‘work,’ and how we evaluate successful strategies for enhancing income within large development initiatives can therefore be a tricky business.  

Understanding how to expand alternative livelihoods can seem straightforward on paper but is complicated in practice, particularly for food security programs. The Strengthening Capacity in Agriculture, Livelihoods, and Environment (SCALE) Award, funded by USAID Food for Peace (FFP), is committed to strengthening off-farm and non-farm work within Development Food Security Activities (DFSAs) as part of its larger alternative livelihoods strategy. Implemented by Mercy Corps in collaboration with Save the Children, SCALE is working to clarify and bolster employment opportunities beyond farming in food insecure communities, in addition to strengthening on-farm work.

As the initial step of SCALE’s alternative livelihoods work, the team consulted with DFSA partners and implementers to develop a glossary that aims to eliminate confusion around frequently used terms. Some of the key definitions include the following:

  • On-farm activities consist of farming and agricultural production, including casual and seasonal labor. Viewed through a value chain lens, on-farm work occurs at the “beginning” of the value chain. According to the Office of Food for Peace 2016 – 2025 Food Assistance and Food Security Strategy, on-farm income is typically where DFSAs focus.
  • Off-farm income encompasses all agriculture-related activities that occur beyond the farm. Viewed through a value chain lens, off-farm income includes the “middle” and “end” of the process, as agricultural goods leave the farm to ultimately reach the consumer. Examples of off-farm income and enterprise include extension services, processing, packaging, storage, transportation distribution, and retail sale.
  • Much of the confusion with alternative livelihoods definitions rests in the fact that off-farm and non-farm activities are often conflated. Unlike on-farm and off-farm activities, non-farm income and related private sector actors exist outside of agricultural market systems. Non-farm sectors include construction, health care, hospitality, education, mining, and tourism. Some implementing partners refer to non-farm as non climate-dependent income.

Given the dynamic world of work and labor preferences, on-farm, off-farm, and non-farm work often contribute to mixed livelihoods (also known as a portfolio of work or poly-employment). According to the World Bank and others, mixed livelihoods occur when individuals earn income from multiple, diverse sources – from agriculture to casual labor to petty trade and formal work. Many workers adopt this approach, in part, because it mitigates the risk and seasonality inherent in any one source of income, and because it is often not possible to sustain sufficient income from a single occupation. Additionally, many populations, youth in particular, prefer the economic diversity that multiple income streams offer. Alternative livelihoods often also imply mixed livelihoods, with earnings from agricultural work being the primary, but not sole, source of income.

While eliminating ambiguity around alternative livelihoods terms is useful, what’s perhaps most important to remember is this: the absolute categorization of alternative livelihoods activities is not wholly critical as long as the interventions, strategies, principles, and outcomes are sound and appropriate in a given context. For designing, evaluation and collaboration purposes, however, it’s helpful to work from common usages.

To weigh in on these definitions, discuss their influence on program design and evaluation, and learn more about SCALE’s alternative livelihoods strategy, please join Mercy Corps, Save the Children and the USAID/Office of Food for Peace on Thursday, March 7 at 9am EST for a webinar: What’s in a Name? From on-farm to non-farm livelihoods and everything in between.

To learn more about the SCALE Award, please visit www.fsnnetwork.org/scale.

Tara Noronha

SCALE Alternative Livelihoods Strategy Lead

Mercy Corps