Way Ahead for Agricultural Productivity

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Agricultural Productivity in Africa

As a growing population fuels increased demand for food, the pressure on Africa’s agricultural sector also grows. However, agricultural productivity in the region remains low. A new IFPRI book, Agricultural productivity in Africa: Trends, patterns, and determinants, provides an extensive study of the current condition of agricultural productivity in Africa, arguing that the region’s ongoing economic development gives hope for the sustainable expansion of the agricultural sector.

The book is organized into seven chapters, incorporating a unique mix of data sources and covering a range of factors that drive, or impede, agricultural productivity. These include input and capital use, technological capacity and adoption, the spatial variation of agricultural productivity in the region, and a typological analysis of areas with similar agricultural productivity trends and patterns.

The first chapter frames the ongoing discussion surrounding Africa’s agricultural productivity, posing a hypothesis for the historical evolution of the region’s productivity and detailing current regional efforts and development strategies to improve the sector. According to the author, during colonial times, the continent was developed essentially for resource extraction, relying heavily on exports of agricultural commodities. After independence, countries continued relying on agricultural exports, but under a “dual-economy” models of development that focused on manufacturing and the urban sector rather than agriculture. 

Low investment in the rural sector followed in many countries, along with price controls to ensure low food prices in urban areas. These endeavors, paired with leadership issues and political and economic instability in the 1970s-1980s, led to incredibly low agricultural growth – agricultural productivity grew at 1 percent per year in Africa south of the Sahara during this period, compared with the 3 percent growth that Asia experience during the same period. The 1980s and 1990s brought austerity measures that led to a further drastic reduction in government spending in agriculture in general.

However, the successes of the Green Revolution in Asia began to inspire countries to design their own strategies for poverty reduction, and agriculture started to play a more prominent role toward the end of the 1990s. Promotion and support for yield-enhancing technologies and modern management techniques grew and agricultural productivity slowly started to return to levels seen prior to 1970. The question, however, still lingers regarding why Asia’s Green Revolution was not replicated on the African continent. Explanations range from agro-ecological complexities, poor economic policies, and a lack of openness to international trade, as well as infrastructural and human capital deficiencies.  Africa’s current agricultural development strategy includes concerted regional efforts by the African Union and others to coordinate and unify efforts. However, a lack of commitment by many countries to the promised investment in agricultural research and development remains a challenge.

In the second chapter, the authors analyze agricultural productivity trends, addressing the complexities in productivity’s different components and definitions including partial factor productivity (PFP) and total factor productivity (TFP). The chapter delves into the evolution of these indicators across Africa, at the aggregated, regional, and country levels. The authors find that between 1961 and 2012, land productivity increased the fastest over the continent, followed by labor productivity and finally TFP, which mostly was due to technical advancement. Southern Africa saw higher labor and lower land productivity than other regions; this finding is consistent with the low mechanization of agricultural operations observed in other regions. Over time, in general, land and labor productivity had a U-shaped trend for growth, but from the mid-1980s, an increasing trend of growth in labor productivity and TFP can be seen. The authors highlight that there is no one-size-fits-all solution and that policies need to be targeted according to each country’s specific needs. However, they conclude with a general call for policies and investments that can help intensify agricultural production, specifically support for the adoption of technological advancements and modern practices.

Chapter Three studies the spatial patterns of agricultural productivity in Africa by using a harmonized collection of geographic information data. The authors examine the spatial patterns of land and labor productivity, including the projected effects of climate change. The chapter is able to differentiate land productivity across regions and finds a clear relationship with the crops being cultivated with West Africa having the lowest returns. Labor productivity has a wider variation across regions, although poverty is clearly present, with workers in Africa South of the Sahara generating gross crop value of around $1 per day of work.

The fourth chapter delves into typologies of agricultural productivity zones (APZ), allowing for a more refined measurement of productivity that account for farming systems, national borders, and agricultural production conditions. Each APZ is composed of a geographical area, or a set of non-contiguous geographical areas, where a set of homogeneous characteristics can be observed. The construction of APZ is useful given that producers in a common APZ are more likely to follow a similar technology adoption pathway since they are faced with similar opportunities and constraints. Understanding APZ can allow policymakers and development practitioners to tailor interventions to meet each zone’s specific needs. The authors find that Africa’s greatest diversity of APZ exists among the agro-pastoral systems, followed by tree-root crop systems; the region’s least diverse zone is the rice-tree system.

Chapter Five focuses on agricultural intensification and fertilizer use, using some of the dominant APZs identified in the previous chapter to observe patterns of intensification and to analyze output composition and associated input use. The author then examines the patterns in which African countries appear to incorporate new technology to increase production, as well as what role fertilizers play in those patterns. The author finds that incorporating land into production is a significant component of output growth; around 50 percent of the countries in Africa South of the Sahara have abundant land, while the other half of the region is more land-constrained. According to this chapter’s findings, fertilizers do not appear to be a major factor in output growth, being a tool of land expansion but not of yield increase.

Several case studies of agricultural enhancement interventions are assessed in Chapter Six. The authors use a qualitative approach to inspect the differences in performance of these interventions, as well as their possible justifications. Common factors influencing interventions’ success include: the suitability of instruments, the design and timing of implementation, environmental and financial sustainability, community participation, and the presence of organized groups. In particular, lack of environmental sustainability proved fatal to many projects, making clear that environmental and financial sustainability require long-term commitment from participating stakeholders.

In summary, the authors present key findings and highlight opportunities and constraints for increasing Africa’s agricultural productivity. The authors note a significant need for investment in agricultural R&D, facilitation of cross-border technological exchange, and increase of institutional capacity. The chapter also identifies the need for better quality data, while remarking on the wide variety of sources and types of data used throughout the book. As a final call, the authors emphasize the need for more investment in clear and transparent national data and statistical systems.

By: Florencia Paz, IFPRI

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