African Agriculture

Posted on May 28, 2008


Originally published on


Global food prices have skyrocketed in the past year, sparking riots in 2008 in cities from Egypt to Haiti. Rising prices pose a particular threat in sub-Saharan Africa, where conflicts and drought exacerbate the affects of high prices. Though sub-Saharan Africa has the potential to become an agriculture powerhouse, crop yields for much of the region are a fraction of those in the rest of the world. Agronomists say the continent needs to drastically increase its agriculture productivity, and recommend a range of options—from high-yield seeds to fertilizer to improved infrastructure—to spur an agricultural revolution in Africa. The region’s economic development may depend on such a revolution, experts say, but it will require strong support from individual African governments.

History of Agricultural Production

Roughly 65 percent of sub-Saharan Africa’s population relies on subsistence farming (PDF).  The typical farmer in the region, however, is a woman with no fertilizer, no high-yield seeds, no irrigation, and no medication for her animals. Sub-Saharan Africa adds less than 10 kilograms of fertilizer per hectare of land; in comparison, Asia employs 144 kilograms, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Cereal yields for sub-Saharan African farmers have declined or stagnated since the 1970s, and now stand at roughly one-third of those in South Asia, according to the World Bank. In the late 1960s, most sub-Saharan countries were net food exporters; as of 2002, sub-Saharan Africa imported 19 million tons of food a year.

Experts blame several factors for the region’s poor agricultural performance over the past three decades. First, sub-Saharan Africa’s challenging environmental conditions make agriculture production difficult, particularly for small-scale farmers. Soil quality is poor in many areas, droughts are frequent, and infrastructure for transporting goods to market is limited. Unlike Asia, where a significant fraction of land is irrigated, 96 percent of arable land in sub-Saharan Africa depends on rainfall. The diversity of the region’s agroecologies—from soil to climate to type of crop produced—also complicates matters. Whereas rice and wheat are Asia’s two staple crops, sub-Saharan Africa has eight major food staples, according to the World Bank’s World Development Report 2008.

Compounding these natural hurdles, foreign aid to the sector has declined significantly since the 1970s. Just 4 percent of current development aid to the entire continent goes to agriculture investment. USAID, the U.S. development agency, has cut its agricultural aid by 75 percent in the past two decades. According to Jane Harrigan, an agriculture economist at the University of London, beginning in the 1980s there was a “very clear shift away from productive sectors like agriculture and infrastructure and trade toward social sectors such as health, education, and governance.” She now sees early signs of aid flows shifting back toward agriculture.

The World Bank was the largest single donor to sub-Saharan African agriculture between 1990 and 2005, but an October 2007 study conducted by the bank strongly criticized its agriculture strategy. The bank’s policy advice produced results that “have fallen short of expectations because of weak political support and insufficient appreciation of reality on the ground, among other things,” the study determined.

Role of Sub-Saharan Governments

The region’s governments did not devote enough funding to agriculture from the 1980s onward. While many countries prioritized expanding food production in the 1970s, national government funding on agricultural science fell by 27 percent on the continent between 1981 and 2000 (in the rest of the developing world, it rose by 30 percent during the same period). Many governments currently allocate less than 1 percent of their national budgets to the sector. Some experts attribute this drop in funding to austere macroeconomic programs imposed by lenders such as the International Monetary Fund that precipitated budget cuts in the mid-1980s. Others say the decrease has ideological roots. “Over the last twenty-five years, anyone who advocates public-sector investment in more agriculture science gets attacked from both the left and right,” says Robert Paarlberg, a political scientist at Wellesley College and author of Starved for Science: How Biotechnology Is Being Kept Out of Africa. “Between those two attacks, there is not much room in the center to promote what has worked in Asia and, earlier, in the United States and Europe.”

Another line of thinking holds that Africa’s food crisis stems not from lack of state-led efforts to improve agricultural output, but from the episodic nature of such efforts. As Hans Holmen of Linkoping University in Sweden writes in The African Food Crisis: Lessons from the Asian Green Revolution, countries such as Zimbabwe, Kenya, and Nigeria launched efforts at agricultural reform in the 1970s and 1980s, but these attempts failed because funding was not sustained.

Some experts suggest that African governments have resisted funding agriculture programs because they have become too dependent on international food aid. Mafa Chipeta, a Malawian who heads the Food and Agriculture Organization’s subregional office in Ethiopia, says “Africa needs to be offended at the idea of a grown-up continent being fed by others that have no obligation to do so.” Instead, he says, African governments continue to demonstrate unwillingness to pay for agriculture development and instead expect the World Food Program to send them assistance.

Learning from Asia’s ‘Green Revolution’

Agronomists agree that sub-Saharan Africa would benefit from the techniques that spurred agricultural reform in South Asia in the 1970s. The Rockefeller Foundation, which partnered with governments in Asia and Latin America to precipitate the original “Green Revolution,” suggests that a similar system of reforms in Africa will be more challenging (PDF), but the components are similar:

  • developing high-yield crops;
  • training experts in agriculture science;
  • increasing government commitment to agriculture;
  • building agriculture markets.

“Our emphasis is on raising productivity of smaller farmers,” says Joe DeVries, director of the Rockefeller Foundation’s program on Africa’s Seed Systems. “It isn’t anything that fancy about our program. We are really just trying to do the basics: breed new varieties of crops that are higher yielding and locally adapted.” Through the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), a partnership between Rockefeller and the Gates Foundation that is chaired by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, DeVries is funding local plant-breeding teams to come up with new crop varieties based on feedback from local farmers. AGRA works in thirteen countries in sub-Saharan Africa, with plans to scale up to twenty.

Pedro A. Sanchez, director of the tropical agriculture program at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, says “AGRA is well-respected by African governments and they are just getting started. They certainly have the ear of the governments and they are hiring top-notch African scientists.” But some experts say the alliance may lack the resources for large-scale implementation. It began in 2006 with a $150 million grant, and the Gates Foundation pledged an additional $164 million in January 2008. Policymakers and economists suggest, however, that the continent requires billions of dollars per year in agriculture investment. The 2002 Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Program, drafted by a group of African government officials and international experts, calls for $251 billion in irrigation, infrastructure, education, and markets investment between 2002 and 2015. The program says half of this funding should come from African governments, with the rest from international donors.

In July 2003, members of the African Union agreed to devote at least 10 percent of their government budgets to agriculture programs over the next five years. So far only Rwanda and Zambia have actually executed the plan. Top-level leadership is “absolutely essential” to the development and funding of effective agriculture policies, says the University of London’s Harrigan. For instance, individual countries need robust research programs for the development of new seed varieties. “Agriculture is not like medicine. You can’t have a breakthrough in New Jersey and make it available to people all over Africa,” says Paarlberg. The private sector will not fund such programs because they take at least five years to yield results, DeVries says.

Public-sector investments that improve the efficiency of agriculture markets are also necessary. According to the World Bank’s World Development Report 2008, “Markets will not work without addressing the massive infrastructure deficit.” Rural roads to link farmers to towns are a pressing need, the bank says, as are coordinated infrastructure development across countries and regulatory reforms that combat customs corruption.

Case Study: Malawi

Some economists and policymakers recommend that sub-Saharan Africa’s governments subsidize their farmers directly. In the past year, Malawi has attracted attention for its decision to ignore the free-market policy prescriptions of international donors and initiate a fertilizer-subsidy program. Its past three years of crop yields have been significantly higher, leading many agronomists to recommend that other countries adopt programs modeled on Malawi’s. In 2006, maize prodution in the country doubled; in 2007, it almost tripled. The country exported over 300,000 tons of maize to Zimbabwe last year. “This is the solution and the time to strike is now, when food prices are high,” says Columbia University’s Sanchez.

But critics say Malawi’s policies have weakened its private agriculture sector, particularly its agribusiness dealers. And free traders see subsidies as a short-term fix. “A season or two of bad weather could recast Malawi’s policy as a heavy fiscal burden which the country has to carry because its farmers, who make up most of the country’s voters, now view big subsidies as a right rather than a last resort,” writes the Economist.

Some academics suggest the money Malawi spends on subsidies should be spent on long-term investments such as infrastructure, research, and market development. But developed countries such as the United States and members of the European Union have a long-standing system of farm subsidies. “If we can justify subsidizing a farmer in the EU that earns $50,000 per year, surely we can justify subsidizing a farmer in Africa that makes $100 a year,” says the FAO’s Chipea.

Facing an Unknown Future with Cautious Optimism

The policy debate over Malawi reflects an unresolved conflict between those who favor state intervention in the agriculture sector and those championing free markets. Both camps, however, are optimistic about the long-terms prospects for upping agricultural yields in Africa. In May 2008, Kofi Annan predicted that within five to ten years, the food production of African farmers should be doubled or tripled. Other experts, such as the University of London’s Harrigan, suggest that a ten- to twenty-year time frame is more realistic. “Once you have technology, it takes farmers a long time to have confidence to adopt the technology. Simultaneously, you need market development,” she says.

No quick fix exists to address the serious talent shortage, either. DeVries says it’s necessary to train many more African scientists—plant breeders, soil scientists, and agriculture economists—to carry out local research. To accomplish training, technology development, and market strengthening, the region’s governments will need long-term assistance from international donors. Experts are cautiously optimistic about the World Bank’s pledge to double agriculture aid to the continent. “It was good for them to bite the bullet and say, ‘We weren’t doing things right,'” says Sanchez. But economists such as Harrigan warn that it’s unclear how much state involvement donors like the World Bank will encourage. For instance, the World Bank doesn’t fund fertilizer subsidies.

Experts offer a mixture of other near-term policy suggestions. Soliciting advice and assistance from individual Asian governments could also benefit sub-Saharan Africa. Paarlberg suggests that the Indian and Chinese governments could offer technical assistance to the region’s governments. “They have enormous credibility in terms of using agricultural science to increase productivity,” he says. Other experts note that reforming the U.S. aid program to allow food to be purchased within Africa, instead of shipped from the United States, would eliminate one important market distortion in many African countries. While many nongovernmental organizations and policymakers suggest that the region would profit tremendously from the reduction or removal of EU and U.S. trade subsidies, economists are less hopeful. Because Asian countries currently have a competitive advantage in agriculture, they would likely reap more of the benefits of such policy changes than would sub-Saharan Africa.

Posted in: CFR