What Are the Right Policies for African Agriculture?

There are pressing needs to pay more attention to African agriculture. A staggering 23% of Africans are undernourished – about 239 million people in total (FAO, 2012). Much of this hunger is associated with poor agricultural output. Grain yields per hectare in Africa are only 37% of those achieved in Asia (USDA, 2010). The population is increasing rapidly, and while Africa’s food imports and exports were about balanced in 1980, the value of food imports to Africa in 2007 exceeded exports by $US 22 billion (FAO, 2011). Africa has been able to a certain extent to overcome the effects of its poor food production through imports and food aid, but the recently experienced volatility of world food prices and the expected increased global demand for food as the world population increases to 9 billion by 2050 demonstrate that Africa can no longer depend upon a global abundance of cheap food to supply its import market.

Africa faces multiple challenges in producing enough food. Almost 60% of Africa (not including the non-productive hyper-arid deserts) is classified as drylands (statistic derived from Kigomo, 2003; UNSO/UNDP, 1997). Drylands are defined as places where the ratio of annual precipitation to potential evapotranspiration is less than 0.65 (Leeuw et al., 2014), and are further divided into arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas. The scarcity of water in the drylands (often with only one short rainy season per year) places a severe limitation on agriculture. African soils are geologically old, severely weathered, fragile and typically quite infertile. Poorly developed infrastructure hinders the development of value chains and efficient markets. Rural finance is poorly developed and land tenure is often weak. Many African farmers already have to cope with major fluctuations in the weather, particularly erratic rainfall. All of this makes African agriculture susceptible to the effects of climate change.

Most predictions of the effects of climate change point to increases in season-to-season weather variability and an increase in severe weather events including droughts and floods (Rosenweig et al., 2001). Temperatures will rise (IPCC, 2014), which will cause potentially catastrophic shifts in the distribution of different crops and crop varieties. Africa is expected to suffer badly. For example, maize yields (which are relatively tolerant to increased temperatures) across Africa and Latin America have been predicted to fall by about 10% per year by 2050, equivalent to an annual loss of $2 billion (Jones and Thornton, 2003). This relatively modest figure masks large country-to-country variation, with many countries in Africa expected to perform much worse that the continental average. Changes associated with increased temperatures could significantly shift the areas currently suited to different crops in Africa, leaving only 12-15% of suitable cropping areas overlapping with currently cultivated areas (Burke et al, 2009). The total costs across Africa of adaptation to a 2°C mid-century increase in temperature has been predicted to rise to about $23 billion per year, of which over $2 billion will be for agriculture. A further increase in temperature would dramatically affect these adaptation costs. Farmers who are already vulnerable to external shocks will find it increasingly difficult to sustain an agricultural livelihood.  Considerable efforts will be needed to make African agriculture resilient to climate change. This will be challenging, since much of African agriculture currently does not bring in enough income to fund investment for adaptation to climate change. Policy makers will have an important role in enabling a transformation of agriculture.

The structure of land holdings in Africa perpetuates poverty and frustrates development efforts.  Most African farmers are smallholders. Most farms in Africa are smaller that 2 hectares; the median size across the continent is 1 hectare, with much smaller plots where land has been repeatedly subdivided (Eastwood, et al, 2008). Smallholders are not inherently inefficient: there is ample evidence that smallholder farming can be very productive (Larson et al, 2012). The challenge is how to make a smallholding sufficiently profitable to help a family out of poverty.  The small size of farms limits financial gains even from very productive investments. Surveys of small farms in Asia and Africa show that the average median net income gain from improved agriculture on smallholdings is only $268/hectare/season, with a de facto limit of about $700 (Harris and Orr, 2014). For a family of (say) five, this leaves income below any poverty line.

This observation challenges much development policy that focuses on improving smallholder production. Certainly, improvements in smallholder agriculture can improve food security. The hunger index for Malawi fell from 29.9 to 16.7 between 1990 and 2012 (IFPRI, undated), and much of this improvement can be attributed to increased maize production on smallholdings resulting from fertilizer subsidies. But though making people less hungry is a worthy humanitarian aim, increased food production does not always cause economic development or ameliorate poverty.  A continued focus on smallholders is often supported by donors and national policy makers on the basis of their relative efficiency (in terms of crop yield per unit area), the availability of family labor and the success of smallholders outside of Africa, principally China (see discussion in Conway, 2011).  This focus, however, is counterproductive.  Collier (2009) warns that poverty is intrinsic to this peasant mode of economic organization and “we have become blinded to this evident fact by our own romantic attachment to the preservation of society which is the antithesis of modern.” Ultimately, all successful developed countries have moved most of their populations out of agriculture, leaving fewer people to farm larger plots more efficiently. There is little reason to believe that development in Africa will follow a different path, and increased efficiency of large-scale land use should allow the necessary investment to adapt to climate change.

The challenge for policy makers, therefore, is to increase production, incomes and food security for smallholders while encouraging farming to evolve from its smallholder base into larger farms. These can be achieved by encouraging the diversification of agriculture, increasing the planting of high-value crops, adding value through local processing and adopting new technology. These remedies, though, are only possible in areas with good, well-managed soil, plentiful water, and a market for high-value and processed commodities. Where these do not exist, as in much of the rain-fed agriculture of Africa, these recommendations might serve only to keep farming communities mired in deep poverty traps.

Farmers’ rights to use land across Africa are often poorly protected. Many farmers do not have secure tenure, and they can lose their land to richer speculators or more influential members of their communities. States of “legal pluralism” exist where formal codes of land ownership (such as the issuing of title deeds) co-exist with traditional ways by which communities allocate land to people. Such pluralism often leads to confusion over property rights that leave the poorer members of the community unable to protect their lands. It is important for policy-makers to make land tenure regimes equitable and transparent so that farmers can elect either cash-in the value of their farms and move to other ways of earning a living, while others consolidate land into larger farms.

However, in order for smallholders to transfer to other professions, rural populations need education and health services to prepare them for jobs in the wider economy. In other words, many of the pre-requisites for the development of agriculture and economies in Africa lie outside of the agricultural policy domain.

Though new technology has improved food production outside Africa, it has not been widely adopted in Africa (Bationo and Waswa, 2011). Earlier methods for increasing production were based on the Green Revolution and involved improving crop varieties and increasing the use of productive inputs, principally fertilizers. These techniques, though effective, are severely limited by the diversity of conditions in Africa, especially on small farms. Soil characteristics, rainfall variability, access to inputs and the operation of markets all affect the decisions that farmers make and the success of their farming operations. These conditions vary, sometimes across surprisingly small scales.  Indeed, it is not unusual for soil conditions to vary considerably within one field, and farmers must find ways of working with all of the variables in a way that minimizes their risks and optimizes the probability of getting a reasonable return on investment (Lynam and Twomlow, 2014). Poor farmers seldom take large risks in the hope of getting an exceptional yield because they fear serious economic failure. As a result, the uptake of improved technology in Africa has been slow, and there is a serious perceived “uptake gap”.  New ways of farming have not been adopted at the rate that many people have expected when compared with successes elsewhere, especially the Green Revolution in Asia. The process of adoption of new ways of farming has proved to be difficult and challenging. It is widely recognized that simple “silver bullet” technologies (such as improved varieties and appropriate fertilizers) are necessary but ultimately inadequate, and farmers require improvements to many aspects of crop production at once.  For example: (1) better management of crop residues can improve soil quality, which in turn helps the soil to hold water and avoid the effects of droughts. So-called “fertilizer trees” (members of the legume family) can be used to increase the nitrogen content of soils, sometimes achieving the same results as artificial nitrogenous fertilizers at lower cost. (2) Better security of rights to use land often encourages farmers to invest more in the long-term improvement of land management because they are assured of reaping the long-term benefits. (3) Improving farmers’ access to credit, and insurance allows increased investment while reducing risks. Scientists have been working for several decades to understand how these issues interact and how best to improve farmers’ yields and incomes (Chambers et al, 1989; Coe et al, 2014). This poses challenges for policy makers. It is relatively easy to justify investment in the development of a new crop variety or farming technique, as the potential benefit (under controlled conditions) can be easily demonstrated. It is a greater and longer-term challenge to understand and improve entire crop production and marketing systems. This implies taking agricultural development out of its exclusive agricultural silo, and bringing in policy makers and practitioners from other areas, including finance, water resources, transport, infrastructure and banking, and others. This is a constant challenge given the separation of responsibilities across government ministries and donor departments

As stated in the preceding paragraph, agriculture needs to be understood in terms of systems that involve many governmental sectors outside of agriculture. Equally, farming exists within ecological systems that have great effects on production. African agricultural landscapes tend to be mosaics of different kinds of land use, with fields, trees, grassland and water all interspersed (Milder and Hart, 2014). The non-farm parts of the landscape are valuable to the farmers. Trees in the landscape control the supply of water to farms and can affect the local (or distant) weather (Van Noordwijk et al, 2014); when they are removed, farming suffers. Areas of grassland are often vital to support farmers’ livestock; if they are not properly managed, an important source of food and income will be compromised. The landscape is a haven for beneficial insects that pollinate crops and consume pests. Farms are dependent on water bodies in the landscape. If policy makers ignore the multiple benefits of landscapes, they run a serious risk of reducing farmers’ resilience to the effects of climate change; for example by exposing agriculture to increased water run-off, greater soil erosion and the removal of shade necessary to combat increasing temperatures.

Recent years have seen the promotion of “landscape approaches” that attempt to integrate the management of different sectors across agricultural and non-agricultural land.  Milder et al. (2014) found that many of these were designed mainly as environmental conservation projects with agricultural development being of secondary importance; but nevertheless the benefits to agriculture were clear. Policy makers can increase their capacities to think and plan at a landscape level by escaping from their policy silos and working in partnership with a range of actors with interests in development across landscapes. For example, food security as a policy matter is often left to ministers of agriculture. Ethiopia has successfully used much broader partnerships to tackle food security. In addition to greatly increasing agricultural production, issues as diverse as conditional cash transfers, environmental restoration, infrastructure development, gender and non-farm income generating activities have been brought together to tackle the persistent scourge of food security (Dorosh and Rashid (2013); CHF, undated).

The challenges facing African agriculture are stark even without the effects of climate change. However, the good news is that solving today’s challenges will increase capacities to deal with the effects of climate change in the future. There will not be a “silver bullet” solution to the effects of climate change on agriculture, and the lessons referred to above on the importance of an integrated and holistic policy approach will be even more important. One policy on its own is unlikely to be “good” (although it may be “bad”), but mutually reinforcing policies across a number of sectors can lead us towards agriculture that is truly “climate-smart”.

Dr. Philip Dobie is a Senior Fellow World Agroforestry Centre, Nairobi, Kenya and Adjunct Professor, University College Cork, Ireland.