Published on Africa Can End Poverty

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.


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