Agricultural Research to Drive Development

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While agricultural productivity has increased in Africa south of the Sahara in recent years, it remains far below productivity in other developing regions, and this gap is only increasing, according to a new book released by IFPRI’s Agricultural Science and Technology Indicators (ASTI) program this week. This low productivity has undermined the competitiveness of Africa’s agricultural sector both at home and abroad and could exacerbate both poverty and food insecurity in the region due to a growing reliance on increasingly expensive food imports.

Agricultural Research in Africa: Investing in Future Harvests states that much of the recent growth in Africa’s agricultural productivity has stemmed from increased resource use rather than expansion of growth in total factor productivity (TFP; the agricultural output attributable to efficient use of inputs, rather than by the amount of inputs used). Given that many important agricultural resources, such as land, are finite, this trend is unsustainable; instead, emphasis should be put on increasing agricultural research and development (R&D) in the region to increase TFP and spur more sustainable agricultural growth.

As a region, Africa south of the Sahara is not not investing enough in agricultural R&D and has limited human resource capacity in the agricultural sector. The book finds that in most African countries south of the Sahara, funding for agricultural R&D falls well below the minimum of 1 percent of agricultural gross domestic product recommended by the CAADP. If continued unchecked, this combination of low investment and limited human capital could prevent the region from creating and adopting the technological innovations needed to feed a growing population in the face of increasing challenges, such as climate change.

As a result of low government spending, Africa’s agricultural R&D organizations in the region rely on funding from donors. This leads to several complications. First, donor funding tends to be more volatile. Second, external funding often comes with strings attached, meaning R&D programs may more strongly reflect donors’ experiences and targets than countries’ national priorities.

Finally, private sector investment in agricultural R&D in Africa is constrained by small markets, a dearth of scientists and researchers, and a difficult business environment characterized by weak intellectual property rights and competition with government agencies.

To address these financial constraints, the book provides several recommendations. The first and most obvious is to scale up government funding for agricultural R&D. Without increased government support, it will be very difficult for Africa’s agricultural sector to meet its full potential. Second, the authors call for greater transparency in donor contributions to the agricultural sector and increased ownership of the agricultural research agenda by African actors (government agencies, research organizations, farmers’ groups, etc.). IFPRI’s Agricultural Growth and Development Policy (AGRODEP) Consortium is an example of such ownership; the initiative aims to help African scientists play a stronger role in Africa’s growth and development policy decisions.

The issue of limited human capital ties in very closely with low investment and funding. Having qualified researchers is critical in meeting Africa’s agricultural challenges; however, the region overall lacks the capacity to adequately train staff and provide relevant experience or equitable salaries and benefits. As a result, the region suffers from high rates of researcher attrition – many African researchers seek better opportunities outside of Africa south of the Sahara. The book reports that the absolute number of agricultural researchers in the region has steadily grown in the past few decades, but the number of researchers and those researchers’ qualifications and experience still present serious challenges to increasing effective R&D.

To address these human capital constraints, the book suggests that governments establish long-term recruitment and training plans. These plans should assess existing gaps in specific skills and disciplines, as well as the distribution of staff by age, gender, and degree. In addition, investment in agricultural faculties, especially post-graduate agricultural science programs, is crucial to attract and retain the best and the brightest. Funding for higher education institutions needs to be increased, and national and regional agricultural faculties need to work more closely together in order to build regional leadership and ownership of the research agenda. Successful professional networks, particularly those spanning borders, can help keep researchers employed and actively engaged in the region.

Finally, agricultural R&D will only have an impact if the lessons learned are actually adopted on the ground. This last link in the chain – getting Africa’s heterogeneous smallholder farmers to successfully adopt new agricultural technologies – will require improvements in communication, education and training, and access to markets and information. In addition, the book calls for the establishment of a rural innovation system in which key stakeholders – farmers, agribusinesses, input and service providers, researchers, and public sector agencies – work together to identify needed technological innovations, bottlenecks to the development and use of those innovations, and potential solutions. 

By: Sara Gustafson, IFPRI

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