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agriculture in africa myths and facts

Africa’s Hidden Underemployment Sink

Ellen McCullough's picture

Labor productivity in Sub-Saharan Africa has been garnering attention recently. Development economists focus on labor productivity because it tends to be strongly associated with overall well-being measures, especially for the poor, who are reliably endowed with time, but often little else in the way of productive assets.
 
Cross-sector gaps in labor productivity are key indicators of structural change, which is the economy-wide process by which labor shifts from low-productivity industries such as agriculture, to those that are higher-productivity, such as industry and services. This process underpins development and is premised on large cross-sector gaps in productivity. Economists expect these gaps to be quite large in the poorest countries, and to get smaller as labor shifts out of agriculture. Recent evidence suggests these forces are indeed at work in Sub-Saharan Africa.
 

Inorganic fertilizer use in Africa: Not too low but not too profitable -- Evidence from Nigeria

Saweda Liverpool-Tasie's picture

Inorganic fertilizer use is claimed to be low in sub-Saharan Africa, but it is unclear whether using higher rates of fertilizer would be profitable. My coauthors and I sought to explore the effect of nitrogen on maize in farms across Nigeria to find out.  To do this, we took advantage of the recently available Living Standards Measurement Study - Integrated Surveys on Agriculture, or LSMS-ISA, a household survey project working to collect up to date agricultural data for the same household over time.
What did we find?   

Low yield response and high transport costs reduce fertilizer profitability 
We found that little extra maize production is expected from adding more nitrogen at the margin; that is, the marginal physical product (MPP) of applied nitrogen for maize production in Nigeria is quite low at 8kg.  Though within the range found in peer-reviewed published works, often between 7 and 14 kg, it is much lower than the potential yield response from plots on which research management protocols are being followed. These range between 14 to 50 kg maize per kg nitrogen (N) and even higher in some cases (Snapp et al, 2014).  This low yield response to nitrogen in Nigeria extends to other cereals such as rice (See figure 1).

Domestic factors drive maize price volatility in Burkina Faso, not external ones

Moctar NDiaye's picture

Food price volatility remains a pressing challenge for many African countries (FAO, IMF, and UNCTAD, 2011).  The vast majority of Africa’s population still derives a substantial share of their income from agriculture and low-income households allocate a large share of their budget to food (often more than 60 percent). As a result, large and unexpected swings in food prices cause substantial losses in welfare, and when adequate coping strategies are absent, it may even trap households permanently into poverty. It should thus not surprise that food price shocks still feature highly among the reported shocks by households in Sub-Saharan (Nikoloski, Christiaensen, Hill, 2015).

Among African policymakers, the main reasons for high food price volatility in the domestic markets is often thought to be external, i.e. “imported” from the world food markets. However, the sources may also be domestic, for example when markets are poorly integrated internally. Under the “Agriculture in Africa – Telling Facts from Myths project, data collected by the Société Nationale de Gestion du Stock Alimentaire (SONAGESS) on maize prices in 28 markets from Burkina Faso during the 2000s (July 2004-Nov 2013) were analyzed to tease out the extent to which maize price volatility is driven by domestic rather than external factors. Over the past decades, maize has become the most marketed and exported cereal in Burkina Faso. It now accounts for 31% of grain production, against only 7% three decades ago, and represents the second source of income for farmers, after cotton.

Counting Africa’s Rural Entrepreneurs

In recent years there has been a growing interest in small rural business development and entrepreneurship as conduits for accelerating job opportunities – for the youth and for poverty reduction. This holds particularly in Africa, where the youth bulge is challenging policymakers to generate jobs for an additional 170 million people who are expected to enter the labor force between 2010 and 2020 (Fox at al., 2013).

Among them, 38 percent are projected to work in household enterprises, amounting to around 65 million people. Studies show that jobs generated in the sectors where the poor work and places where the poor live, i.e. in the rural areas, are more effective at lifting them out of poverty.

But is this justified? If only small numbers of rural inhabitants are entrepreneurs, if they predominantly engage in low productive activities, or if they do not make significant contributions to household income, we need to be more skeptical with regard to the role of entrepreneurship. Or at least, we must more critically reconsider whether current supporting policies are appropriate or supportive enough.
 

Killing the Zombie Statistic: Women Contribute 60-80 Percent of Labor in African Agriculture

Luc Christiaensen's picture
How much of the work do women contribute to agriculture in Africa? Over the past decades, “60-80 percent” is the range that has regularly popped up--in celebrity speeches, policy conferences and international publications alike. This is what the Washington Post most recently referred to as a zombie statistic – a figure with little empirical verification that never seems to die out, but resurrects itself repeatedly in discussions and debates. Some forensics suggest that the figure can  be traced back to an undocumented, 1972 quote found in a more general study of women’s contribution to development,   “Few persons would argue against the estimate that women are responsible for 60-80 [percent] of the agricultural labour supplied on the continent of Africa.” (United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, 1972, p. 359). It has gone on to live its own life ever since. Intrigued by this rather unusually high number, we set out to revisit this statistic using nationally-representative data from six Sub-Saharan countries,  collected under the Living Standards Measurement Study – Integrated Surveys on Agriculture Initiative (LSMS-ISA). Together, they represent 40 percent of SSA’s population.

 

Agriculture in Africa – Telling Facts from Myths

Luc Christiaensen's picture
One third of Africa’s food goes lost after it is harvested. Women’s labor contribution in African agriculture is regularly quoted in the range of 60 to 80 percent. Labor is 2 to 4 times more productive outside agriculture.  These are just some of the factoids that shape our thinking about African agriculture and that drive policy.

However, the statistical foundations of Africa’s economic growth and poverty reduction narratives are increasingly being questioned. Shantayanan Devarajan, the World Bank’s former Chief Economist for the Africa Region, spoke of “Africa’s statistical tragedy” (after its growth tragedy of the 1990s), while Morten Jerven drew our attention to the challenges Africa faces in producing reliable national accounts.

When it comes to agriculture, the problems only multiply, with maize yield estimates, for example, varying substantially depending on the data source (by about 1 ton per ha between 1.7 and 2.6 ton/ha in Malawi in 2006/7). Clearly, tracking progress, even on some of the most elementary statistics for agricultural policymaking, is a challenge. So, what about the reliability of our common wisdom and policy direction which is often supported by references to the type of statistical factoids quoted above? Are we flying blind or vision impaired?