Conventional wisdom holds that Sub-Saharan African farmers use few modern inputs despite the fact that most growth-inducing and poverty-reducing agricultural growth in the region is expected to come largely from expanded use of inputs that embody improved technologies, particularly improved seed, fertilizers and other agro-chemicals, machinery, and irrigation. Yet following several years of high food prices, concerted policy efforts to intensify fertilizer and hybrid seed use, and increased public and private investment in agriculture, how low is modern input use in Africa really?
Agriculture and Rural Development
From my seat as an Education economist at the World Bank, I go through a number of strategies from countries and sectors in Africa outlining how best to achieve economic growth and development. I am repeatedly struck by a key question: Who will do it? Who will add value to African exports? Who will build? Who will invent? Who will cure? The answer is, of course, that graduates from African universities and training institutions should do it. But the problem is one of numbers and quality—there are simply not enough graduates in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), and programs are of uneven quality.
About twenty years ago, while working for BRAC in Bangladesh, I was accompanying some visitors to one of BRAC’s non-formal education schools in a village about two hours out of the capital city Dhaka. To my surprise, instead of the usual sight of a classroom full of children, we found that only about 10 out of the 30 enrolled had showed up. Upon enquiry the teacher pointed out what seemed obvious to her: it was December and many children were in the fields helping harvest the rice crop or doing household chores. To be honest I didn’t think much more of the issue at the time.
History shows that investments in agriculture can be a catalytic force in the fight against hunger, poverty and malnutrition and a well-performing farm economy can be an instrument for achieving sustained structural economic transformation. Agricultural growth was the precursor to industrial growth in Europe and, more recently through the Green Revolution, in large parts of Asia and Latin America. The Green Revolution bypassed Africa.
When I was elected President of the Republic of Ghana in 2000, agriculture was a mainstay of the nation’s economy, accounting for 35% of its GDP, 55% of employment and 75% of export revenues. But it was a lagging, orphan sector, suffering from decades of neglect and lack of investment. Ghana’s agriculture had sadly changed little from the kind practiced generations ago. Farmers were still eking out a living, tilling the land by hand, much like their ancestors.
Delivering food and nutrition security in the face of climate change is one of the biggest challenges of our generation. So it’s encouraging to see influential stakeholders around the world taking action today at the Climate Summit. From the private sector’s efforts to put a price on carbon, to the energy sector’s focus on lowering emissions, key stakeholders are realizing that inaction is not an option.
But one sector has yet to get its act together. Climate action may be gaining momentum, but the agriculture sector is largely stuck in ‘business as usual’ mode. Unlike other areas of the economy, it hasn’t made any big, transformational moves towards climate resilience or reducing emissions. We are missing our “electric car”.
Agricultural transformation is a priority for Africa. Across the continent, the significant information needs of farmers—accurate local weather forecasts, relevant advice on agricultural practices and input use, real time price information and market logistics—remain largely unmet. To the extent that rural regions are typically sparsely populated with limited infrastructure and dispersed markets, the use of innovative information and communication technologies (ICTs) overcome some of these information asymmetries and connect farmers to opportunities that weren't necessarily available to them earlier. Harnessing the rapid growth of digital technologies holds hope for transformative agricultural development.
A recent surge in China’s food imports has rekindled concerns about global food demand raised by Brown (1995) and about food self-sufficiency in China. According to UN Comtrade data, China’s trade in food was roughly balanced until 2008 but subsequently moved into deficit, with net imports rising to $38.7 billion in 2013. A key question is whether China will become a massive net food importer like Japan and the Republic of Korea, which rely on world markets for more than 70 percent of grain and soybean demand.
China’s rapid economic growth, at 8.5 percent average annual per capita in purchasing power parity terms since economic reform began in 1978, has dramatically changed Chinese diets. While China’s per capita calorie consumption appears likely to be approaching its peak, the composition of food demand seems likely to continue to change, as consumers shift away from basic staples and towards animal-based products. This shift to greater dietary diversity imposes greater burdens on agricultural resources since animal-based diets require much more agricultural resources than vegetable-based diets.
Hassen Abidi crumbles a sickly-looking ear of wheat in his hand. He doesn't need an agronomist to tell him it's infected with a fungal blight known to local farmers as “septoria”. "I know more about growing things than any doctor knows about medicine, but I'm at my wit's end with all this," he says. "I sometimes wonder why I carry on planting."
Hardly a week goes by without my hearing the statement, “It’s not the What; it’s the How.” On the reform of energy subsidies in the Middle East and North Africa, for instance, the discussion is focused not on whether subsidies should be reformed (everyone agrees they should be), but on how the reform should be carried out. Similar points are made about business regulations,education, agriculture, or health. I confess to having written similar things myself. And there is no shortage of such proposals on this blog.
Reforms are needed because there is a policy or institutional arrangement in place that has become counterproductive. But before suggesting how to reform it, we should ask why that policy exists at all, why it has persisted for so long, and why it hasn’t been reformed until now. For these policies didn’t come about by accident. Nor have they remained because somebody forgot to change them. And they are unlikely to be reformed just because a policymaker happens to read a book, article or blog post entitled “How to reform…”