An African 'green revolution' would generate a number of productive jobs in agriculture and provide a leg up out of poverty for many
Africa's peasants are migrating to the cities in huge numbers because it is becoming increasingly difficult to survive on their farms.
Farmers are trapped into using inefficient technologies; average cereal yields have barely increased in 40 years and farm sizes are shrinking. Although Africans are leaving the farm, far too few are finding productive jobs in the cities. Most are getting poorer, the cost of safety-net programmes is escalating and Africa's dependence on concessionary food imports is growing. As the recent world food crisis has demonstrated, these trends can have catastrophic consequences for the continent's poor.
The situation in Africa today bears some striking similarities with Asia in the early 1960s. Asian countries also wanted to industrialise, but faced with worsening food shortages, slow agricultural growth, and a large agricultural workforce with many peasant farmers, they saw that rapid agricultural growth was a key step along the path to industrialisation.
Asian governments spent 10-15% of their total budget on agriculture each year, investing heavily in agricultural research, irrigation, rural roads and power. They also provided direct policy support to their farmers by shoring up farm credit systems, subsidising vital inputs like fertiliser, power, and water, and intervening in markets to ensure that farmers received adequate and stable prices.
Many of these interventions were targeted to small farms, who enthusiastically adopted the new technologies and typically outperformed larger farms.
The green revolution that these policies inspired helped transform Asia. It pulled the region back from the edge of an abyss of famine and led to regional food surpluses within 25 years. It created huge amounts of productive employment in agriculture and allied industries, lowered food prices, lifted many people out of poverty, and bolstered savings and domestic demand to help grow many nascent industries.
Africa, in contrast, has failed to do the same. African governments and donors have invested relatively little in agriculture. For over 40 years African governments have spent 5-6% of their total budget on agriculture, less than half the share spent in Asia. Donors have also played down agriculture, contributing little more than $1bn per year (in 2004 prices) – a paltry $30 per African farmer – for agricultural development, hardly enough to kickstart an agricultural revolution.
One consequence of this neglect is the appalling state of rural infrastructure in Africa. Africa has only exploited a fraction of its irrigation potential, and the density of rural roads today is a fraction of what Asia had in the 1950s. As a result, African farmers rely almost exclusively on rain-fed farming and face exceptionally high transport and marketing costs that makes a shift to more efficient farming unprofitable.
There is ample evidence to show that yields can be dramatically increased in Africa when farmers have access to improved technologies and markets. Africa's small farmers have also proved themselves no less entrepreneurial or efficient than their Asian cousins when given the opportunity. But exploiting this potential on a large scale would require a quantum increase in public investment in agricultural research and rural infrastructure, and that African governments provide more supportive policies for agriculture, including partnering with private firms to strengthen input-supply systems and food grain markets. As in Asia, Africa's green revolution will need to begin in "bread basket" areas that have the better agricultural potential and market access.
An African green revolution would generate many productive jobs in agriculture and provide a leg up out of poverty for many. By securing family food supplies through higher yields, it would enable many small farmers to free up land and labour for more profitable uses. It would also increase local demand for higher-value foods and non-farm goods and services, creating additional productive employment in rural areas. As in Asia, this would create a growing domestic demand for some of Africa's industries, especially those related to agricultural processing.
Africa must industrialise, but history shows there are few pathways from an agrarian state that do not involve an early agricultural revolution. The alternative favoured by some is to create export-oriented, manufacturing enclaves that, even if highly successful, would barely dent Africa's employment needs, while at the same time consolidating land into large farms and pushing millions of peasants off the land. Asia provides a better model to avoid the catastrophe that would follow from such 1950s thinking.
• Peter Hazell is visiting professor at Imperial College London and a professorial research associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). He will be speaking at IFAD's conference, New directions for smallholder agriculture, which begins in Rome today
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