Agricultural Mechanization in Africa: Lessons from Bangladesh
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Agricultural mechanization can help reduce farmers’ labor costs and increase agricultural productivity; however, in many parts of Africa south of the Sahara, most farm activities still rely on human and animal power (IFPRI Insights, September 2014). Increasing Africa’s agricultural mechanization could be a key driver of future development in the region, but only if it is done properly and sustainably.

Bangladesh’s recent successful growth in mechanization could provide some important lessons for African countries. A recent series of recent policy notes (one for Ghana and Nigeria and one for Kenya and Ethiopia) describe how Bangladesh’s experience could be adapted to the African context. Between the mid-1990s and 2015, the amount of area in Bangladesh cultivated by tractors and power tillers increased from 30 percent to 95 percent; this growth has occurred not just on large commercial farms but also on small farms of less than 0.5 hectares.

The notes are based on a study tour in Bangladesh conducted in November 2015 by IFPRI and CIMMYT for government officials from nine African countries including Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, and Ethiopia.  African officials toured two major tractor importers, the country’s largest agricultural machinery manufacturer, tractor and spare parts dealers, farmers, and public institutions engaged in agricultural research.

The policy note authors noted that one of the most important observations to come out of the tours was the leading role that the private sector has played in Bangladesh’s rapid mechanization. The country’s relatively strong enabling environment has allowed private sector manufacturers and importers to thrive and to establish an extensive network of agricultural sales and service facilities throughout the country. This network has been critical to increasing the use of agricultural mechanization in the country’s major farming areas, and stands out in contrast to the situation in Ethiopia and Kenya, where machinery importers are located mainly in cities and have little direct contact with farmers in rural areas. Making suppliers more accessible geographically helps lower the cost of mechanization, increases farmers’ awareness of the benefits of mechanization, and can lead to increased uptake.

Private companies in Bangladesh also often provide credit to farmers, helping cut down on the risk associated with investing in new technologies. In addition, many manufacturers and importers of agricultural mechanical goods also participate in other sectors of the economy as well, such as pharmaceuticals; having this diversified business portfolio helps mitigate the risk that could come from depending solely on the agricultural sector.

In addition to Bangladesh’s strong private sector involvement, the government of Bangladesh also plays a key role in making agricultural mechanization attractive and accessible to farmers and suppliers alike. Various government agencies (such as the Bangladesh Agricultural Development Corporation (BADC), the Bangladesh Rural Development Board (BRDB), the Department of Agricultural Extension (DAE) of the Ministry of Agriculture, the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Council (BARC), the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI), and the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI)) have learned to successfully collaborate on the country’s mechanization goals. While similar agencies exist in many African countries, such as Nigeria, according to the authors they often lack the clearly delineated roles and cooperative working environment that characterize the agencies in Bangladesh. In Ghana, meanwhile, similar institutions exist but the country has not yet established clear mechanization goals and strategies.

Finally, Bangladesh has a strong research and extension service network, allowing for both the development of mechanical equipment ideally suited to the country’s needs and the widespread dissemination of agricultural mechanization technologies in particular, as well as more general agricultural information.

Clearly, there are differences between Bangladesh and the four African countries presented in the project note series. However, these countries could take several important lessons from Bangladesh’s experience. For example, Bangladeshi farmers use intensive irrigation, allowing for higher cropping intensity and higher agricultural output. This increased production drove demand for new technologies to keep up with it, such as power tillers and tractors. In Ghana, only 11 percent of farmland is irrigated; Nigeria also depends mostly on rainfed agriculture. Increasing the use of irrigation in these countries could both improve agricultural output and increase farmers’ demand for mechanical equipment.

Private sector involvement in the agricultural mechanization sector needs to be encouraged in all four African countries. In Ethiopia, for example, smallholder farmers often pay to hire oxen for plowing; these farmers could benefit from Bangladesh’s system in which machinery suppliers hire out their machines to local farmers. For private suppliers and manufacturers to flourish and be willing to engage in the agricultural mechanization sector, however, the proper incentives need to be put in place. This will require work on the part of governments to ensure a safe, well-functioning enabling environment.

Finally, agricultural mechanization schemes need to take into account local conditions. For example, in some areas of Ghana and Nigeria, soils are too heavy for the successful use of two-wheeled tractors for tilling; instead, heavier four-wheeled tractors may be needed for tilling, while the smaller two-wheeled tractors could be more useful for harvesting and transportation. Thus, research needs to be done in order to ensure that farmers have access to both machinery and information appropriate for their particular growing conditions.

The experience of Bangladesh gives hope that agricultural mechanization can be successfully scaled up in low-income countries, given the correct enabling environment and investment strategies. However, as became clear during the study tour, Bangladesh’s experiences should be used as a jumping-off point for other countries to adapt to their own specific needs.

By: Sara Gustafson, IFPRI

Photo credit:Flickr: Frank Doyle