Breaking the Cycle of Rural Poverty: One Infrastructure Investment at a Time


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A rural village in Benin ©Arne Hoel/World Bank

A couple years ago I returned to Dovi, my maternal village, for the first time since my middle school years in the mid-1970s. Located in the highly fertile Oueme River Valley, the village at that time was one of the most affluent parts of Central Benin, the breadbasket of Agonlin region. It had the second largest market and one of the best primary schools in the country.

Now, the scenery has completely changed. Today, Dovi is the poorest village in the region despite the fact that the land is still highly fertile. It didn't take me long to realize why this might be: the bridge that linked Dovi to neighboring villages across the Oueme River had collapsed in 1992 and the market completely disappeared soon after. Seeing the market stalls lying in ruins and the overall dilapidated state of the village was the most shocking and transformative moment I have ever experienced.

Upon returning to the city of Cotonou, I became obsessed with the following questions: Is Dovi a typical case or an outlier of rural poverty in Africa? What are the links between land quality, infrastructure, and rural poverty? Why is it that Dovi fell into such poverty despite the fact that it sits on rich fertile soil? Why wasn’t the bridge simply rebuilt so that the area could resume business and remain prosperous?  

In order to investigate these questions in more depth, my colleague Piero Stanig (from the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin) and I went to collect data on soil quality, poverty, transportation costs, and other potential determinants of poverty covering 5334 subnational units from 46 African countries.  We found that my mother’s village Dovi is not an outlier, but instead exemplifies a counterintuitive relationship between land fertility and rural poverty in Africa. The resulting paper, entitled The Curse of Good Soil? Land Fertility, Roads and Rural Poverty in Africa, led us to the following four main findings:

  • There exists a positive correlation between soil quality and poverty in Africa, meaning that regions where land is most fertile are on average more likely to be impoverished than regions where soil is poorer.  
  • Transportation costs or isolation are the main drivers of rural poverty.
  • There exists a mismatch between soil quality and infrastructure. Roads tend to be bad in places with good soil, such as in hills and valleys, and good where the soil is of worse quality, such as in flat terrain close the coast.  
  • When infrastructure is poorly maintained or non-existent, households are poorer in areas where the soil quite fertile than in areas where the land is barren.
We attribute these results largely to insufficient public investment in rural infrastructure and the lack of political influence held by the rural poor.  We also argue that these results may be attributed in part to insufficient human capital investment. In the absence of proper roads and transportation, residents may see little point in investing in education and other human capital drivers given their isolation and their abundant agricultural resources. Conversely, in soil-poor districts with bad roads, households have lower opportunity costs of education than those living in soil-rich districts with bad roads.

However one question remains: if the bridge collapse in Dovi had such a devastating effect on the local economy, why was it never repaired?  After all, the collapsing infrastructure in Dovi exemplifies the relationship described above wherein poor infrastructure is linked with impoverished yet fertile areas—but what stopped authorities from rebuilding the bridge and reviving this once-flourishing community? The answer was found in the community’s coping techniques and corruption. After the bridge collapsed, most young people left the village and moved to neighboring towns to become moto-taxi drivers, as agriculture was no longer as lucrative as it had been before. With the loss of its rising generation, Dovi also lost its political voice. It was also found that politicians misused the resources allocated for local infrastructure, thus leaving Dovi without the critical infrastructure it needed to rebuild its economy.

Getting to the bottom of these questions emphasizes the significance of the ongoing initiatives undertaken by a number of African governments and development agencies for infrastructure development and energy provision in Africa. Isolated villages like Dovi, trapped in a cycle of poverty, can be found all over Africa, despite their great agricultural potential.  With sound investments in properly maintained infrastructure, these villages could not only prosper economically, but also make great strides in human development.

This blog is part of a series featuring Africa-related research on poverty reduction.


October 14, 2014

This research has echoed me.

Ozaveshe Ade Balogun
October 14, 2014

This article titled Breaking the Cycle of Rural Poverty: One Infrastructure Investment at a Time, is a well researched material to address the unending cycle of poverty in Africa. like the World Bank and I believe, Africa can end its poverty mentality if really we want to end it.
In ending the cycle of poverty in Africa, African leaders must get their priorities right. Infrastructure Investment and back-up maintenance culture will go a long way to redress the seemingly unending cycle of poverty in Africa. Often times most Africa leaders lack continuity of laudable projects that meets the yawning of their people. Instead they keep embarking on new programmes or projects, often called white elephant projects.
Truly Africa is not poor because the people are lazy nor is poor because of our peculiar negative environment. Our problem in Africa is simply mis-placed priority by various leaders in governments within the continent. Lack of maintenance culture and continuity of laudable developmental projects is another point. For selfish reasons most African leaders do not believe in continuity hence, you see abandoned projects all over the places.
Take for example the neglect of the collapsed bridge linking a viable community that was left unattended for years in Edo State, Nigeria. This negative development led to Rural-Urban migration of the able bodied youths, willing to farm or do some other good things to earn a decent living.Because they were cut off from their neighbors they chose to relocate to other locations.
This same type of neglect is all around Africa rural set-ups and has brought untold hardship to many of the youths, that are now roaming our streets in the cities. Majority of them are now seeking for non-existence white collar jobs in the cities instead of doing other available lucrative businesses.
For example the oldest Local Government Area in Edo State, Nigeria is Akoko Edo with the Head quarters in Igarra. In this local Government Area, there are so many other villages that depends on the only available road/bridge linking Ojirami community with other communities and Igarra the Local government Headquarters. For years after the collapsed of the Ojirami Dam and the bridge became a death trap for most travelers. It was totally neglected until the present administration in the state decided to intervene.
The people of these communities are well known for their artistic pottery and also rich in farm produce but without motor-able access road their products and farm produce can not get to the market where they are needed.
Indeed, when we learn to build and maintain one Infrastructure Investment at a time, it will go a long way to breaking the cycle of poverty in Africa.

Abdelaziz Lawani
October 14, 2014

Great piece of work Prof. Wantchekon.
As usual you invite us to think beyond the obvious. It was tempting to factualize the correlation between well endowed regions and economic prosperity. The Curse of Good Soil through its four main findings invited us to update our beliefs not the same way as the Curse of Natural Resources does but with an emphasis on the lack of public investment in rural infrastructures.
The case of Dovi raises some interrogations on the role played by the local populations themselves in their prosperity or poverty. It seems it is in their own interest to maintain the bridge that drives their economy.
As you proposed, sound investments will definitely make a difference. Contribution/ownership of the local population might also help to guarantee the durability of those investments.

Kowiyou Yessoufou
October 15, 2014

Excellent findings that should guide decision makers in their policy development

October 15, 2014

Great stride Prof. Wantchékon. We hope this would encourage others in the diaspora to return to the depths of their villages and make some positive contributions.