Investing in Agricultural Research

Africa south of the Sahara is the only developing region in the world where the number of people living below the poverty line continues to rise.  Since agriculture contributes substantially to the economy in this region, spurring agricultural growth is crucial to reducing poverty. But while improved technology has been the driving factor in increased agricultural production growth in other developing areas, in Africa south of the Sahara, growth has been extensive rather than intensive, which will not be sustainable over the long term.

A recent report from IFPRI’s Agricultural Science and Technology Indicators (ASTI) program assesses trends in investments, human resource capacity, and agricultural research outputs in Africa south of the Sahara in order to shed light on why there is such a discrepancy in technological advances in this region compared to other parts of the world.

Data were derived from a combination of primary surveys, secondary sources, (used when primary survey data were missing or of poor quality), and ASTI’s older investment and human resources datasets. The report highlights trends and challenges in four broad areas: funding capacity, human resource capacity, research outputs, and institutional conditions in terms of whether they support or impede effective and efficient agricultural research.

In 2003, as part of the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP), African countries committed to spending at least 10 percent of their national budgets on agriculture to increase sectoral growth by 6 percent per year. Since then, while agricultural research spending and human resource capacity both grew in SSA as a whole, a number of countries have continued to experience stagnation or decline in both of  these areas.

According to ASTI, investment in agricultural research has been shown to play a substantial role in poverty reduction compared to other types of spending, so the lack of investment in agricultural research in Africa is concerning. One of the major justifications for underinvestment in this area is the relatively longer length of time required for agricultural investments to manifest results and, therefore, for policymakers to reap the political benefits of such investments.

Growth in agricultural research spending was slower than growth in agricultural output from 2000-2015, according to the ASTI report. At the same time, agricultural research spending became more dependent on donor funding. Agricultural research in Africa south of the Sahara is more dependent on donor and development bank funding than other developing regions around the world. This poses two challenges. First, this type of funding is more volatile than government funding. Second, donors may choose to fund research programs that are not in fact a priority for the country in question. To address these problems, the ASTI report suggests a new framework whereby governments can establish strategic priorities to which donors can then contribute. Rather than relying so much on donor contributions and development bank loans to fund critical areas of research, governments need to determine their own long-term national priorities and design relevant, focused, and coherent agricultural research programs that donors can opt into as opposed to driving.

Demographics also pose a challenge for agricultural research in Africa south of the Sahara. As of 2014, a large number of agricultural researchers at the PhD-level were approaching retirement age, presenting the risk that certain agencies could be left without research leadership. In a large number of countries, significant discrepancies exist in the working conditions and incentives offered to national agricultural research institutes (NARI) researchers compared with their university-based colleagues. These inequities need to be removed to enable the NARIs to attract, retain, and motivate well-qualified researchers.  Women, who comprise the majority of farmers, are also not strongly represented in the agricultural research sector.  Research facilities and equipment are also becoming outdated in many countries. All of these issues raise concerns about the gaps in and future quality of research output and weaken the incentives for future investment.

Although many governments in Africa south of the Sahara are committed to funding agricultural research in principle, the amounts invested are in many cases only a fraction of countries’ budgeted allocations, due to all of the challenges described above. These discrepancies in funding and support have severe repercussions for the day-to-day operations of agricultural research agencies, creating a vicious cycle.

Several countries have increased their spending on agriculture, including Ethiopia, Ghana, and Nigeria; however, according to ASTI, these increases have been largely directed toward (much-needed) salary increases or staff recruitment, rather than actual research programs.

The report offers the following policy implications for the governments of countries in Africa south of the Sahara to promote future investment into agricultural research at the national level:

  • Governments must address underinvestment in agricultural research and take the necessary policy steps to diversify funding sources. Additional sources of funding could come, for example, from the sale of goods and services or from private sector investment. 
  • Governments must invest in training and capacity building and remove status and salary discrepancies between NARI researchers and university-based researchers to create more incentives for agricultural researchers.
  • Governments must develop long-term national agricultural research policy agendas and provide stronger institutional, financial, and infrastructural support to NARIs. This will allow NARIs to have more autonomy to help drive the changes needed.

By: Jenn Campus

Photo credit:Kate Holt/Africa Practice