Agriculture's Complex Tasks

The agricultural sector in Africa south of the Sahara has taken on an increasingly complex role in the region’s overall development, playing a major part in poverty reduction, food security, economic growth, climate change resilience, job creation, and improved nutrition. West Africa has experienced substantial economic growth in recent decades, with many countries slated to enter middle-income status by 2030, according to a new IFPRI Discussion Paper. Rising incomes, along with a growing overall population, will put new pressures on the region’s agriculture particularly when combined with the impacts of climate change.

According to the paper, which uses IFPRI’s International Model for Policy Analysis of Agricultural Commodities and Trade (IMPACT), if West Africa’s current rate of agricultural output and productivity does not change and population grows at the projected rate of 2.3 percent per year to 2030, demand for food will outstrip supply in the coming decades. By 2030, cereal imports will need to almost double, while meat imports will rise almost fivefold. For roots and tubers, fruits and vegetables, and oilseeds, the region will see a change from net exporter to net importer status. In addition, the paper reports that most food prices in the region will increase by 10 to 20 percent by 2030, placing 32.5 million people at risk of hunger. Addressing these challenges and ensuring that agriculture continues to be able to play its multifaceted role will require coordinated, multisectoral regional efforts.

There do already exist agricultural technologies and improved crop varieties that can facilitate adaptation to climate change and increased agricultural productivity. For example, heat- and drought-tolerant varieties of maize and groundnut have been shown to outperform traditional varieties, even under adverse climate conditions, the paper says. Research has shown that improved technologies and practices such as no-till farming and soil fertility management can also help countries adapt to and prepare for the challenges that will be faced in the coming decades. In order for West Africa to fully realize the opportunities presented by these new technologies, further investments are needed, but the paper argues that determining what to invest in also presents a challenge.

At the global level, investments in agricultural research and productivity growth have shown to result in moderate improvements in income, food supplies, and food security but have had little impact on environmental sustainability by 2030. Similarly, while investments in the expansion of irrigation and increased water use efficiency can reduce wasteful water usage, the authors highlight the need for a mixed portfolio of different investments to meet economic, environmental, and social goals.

Fundamental to all of the desired objectives, however, is agricultural research. Between the late 1990s and 2014, West Africa’s investment in agricultural research grew by more than 50 percent, driven largely by Nigeria and Ghana. Investments from other countries remained stagnant or declined from 2000 to 2014, although the authors note that the launch of the West Africa Agricultural Productivity Program (WAAPP) may have stimulated spending in the past two years. Continued growth in spending on agricultural research will bring with it more favorable development outcomes but countries’ capacity to invest in agricultural research varies widely. The African Union and United Nations set a goal of 1 percent of agricultural gross domestic product (AgGDP) to be spent on agricultural research; however, using a weighted indicator developed by IFPRI’s Agricultural Science and Technology Indicators (ASTI) program, the paper emphasizes that this one-size-fits-all target is not attainable for all countries. Rather, investment priorities should be set based on the structural characteristics of each country’s economy and agricultural sector, including such factors as income levels, level of agricultural diversification, and relevant technology spillovers from neighboring countries.

Using this multifactor view of investments, the paper find that the gap between what West African countries have invested in agricultural research recent years and what the ASTI index estimates they could have realistically invested, while substantial, is lower than previously estimated - around $500 million in 2014 (in 2011 purchasing power parity [PPP]). The paper also suggests that many West African governments could mobilize this sum within what they have already committed through the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP). These funds could then be used regionally to build up agricultural research staff, construct infrastructure, and fund necessary research projects.

In addition to regional funding, the authors note that collaboration is needed across national and regional research institutions and proposes a regional study to look at existing research programs in the region in order highlight priorities for future research. In addition, they note a monitoring system should be put in place to track regional or transboundary research and results that includes tracking of cross-national research collaboration, joint publications, release and adoption of improved crop varieties and agricultural technologies across borders, movement of staff across borders, and collaboration with international research partners.

Finally, the paper provides examples of numerous analytical tools that can be used to improve agricultural research in the region. These include foresight models, computable general equilibrium (CGE) models, geospatial tracking tools, analysis of returns on investment in research, impact assessments, and ASTI methods of tracking investments in agricultural science. By utilizing a combination of these tools and by regularly evaluating new scenarios and data, governments and research institutions can better ensure that agriculture in West Africa remains a driver of improved growth, food security, nutrition, and climate resilience.

By: Sara Gustafson, IFPRI

Photo credit:Mitchell Maher / International Food Policy Research Institute