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African agriculture: a time for cautious optimism?

Time (GMT +01) 16:30 18:00

Ousman Badiane - Africa Director, International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI)
Steve Wiggins - Head of Protected Livelihoods and Agricultural Growth Programme (PLAG), ODI
Andrew Dorward - Professor of Development Economics, SOAS Food Studies Centre

Andrew Dorward introduced FAC and the Seminar Series, and began proceedings by saying that things in agriculture have changed since the doom and gloom of the 1990s, however there are still shocks and challenges facing African agriculture – such as the 2008 food price hike.


Dr Badiane (OB) argued that agricultural growth across Africa has noticeably improved from the 1990s. African agricultural trade performed better than the global average for the first time at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

Assessing the factors behind Africa's recent successes, OB suggested that the improvement in performance can be linked—by timing and the absence of alterations in other factors—to the deep and strong economic reforms of the 1980s; a point which he acknowledged was controversial.

The 2008 food price spike had been used to perpetuate doom and gloom about agriculture globally, when in fact it was an aberration, so while it could happen again, it cannot be seen as indicative of a trend.

Globally, OB noted that while agriculture is struggling to maintain current levels of productivity; not so in Africa, where rising productivity and long term high prices should help the global position of African agriculture.

Reviewing the impact of the financial crisis, OB showed that exports were strongly affected by trade finance constraints and the strong relationship between FDI and agricultural growth. However, remittances to Africa were more resilient than elsewhere following the financial crisis. Furthermore, inflation didn’t increase much during the crisis and private financial flows remained resilient, indicating Africa's comparative resilience.

Development assistance to agriculture, which decreased during the 80s and 90s has increased in the 2000s, and OB noted the importance of programmes such as Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) – the agricultural programme of NEPAD which aims to raise agricultural productivity by at least 6% per year and increase public investment in agriculture to 10% of national budgets per year, through continent-wide benchmarking framework using evidence and outcomes based planning, which OB states will allow better outcomes if it happens as planned.

CAADP’s projections for raising agricultural productivity are dependent on large government spending increases in agriculture, which are beyond the means of most countries in the short term. It is therefore important to make sure that all government spending maximises poverty reduction, and to view this as contributing to agriculture. For example, as opposed to viewing health spending as a loss to agriculture, it should be considered potentially complementary if it improves agricultural productivity. OB showed how targeted malaria treatment in Uganda has had a greater impact on both agricultural efficiency and poverty reduction, when compared to health spending as a whole.

He concluded that while there has been remarkable recovery in agriculture over the last two and a half decades, the bottom line is that there are still large pockets of poverty. However, Africa has better conditions for higher returns to investment in and assistance to the continent than ever before, and the unprecedented continent-wide efforts of CAADP have the potential to improve policy planning and implementation, raise government investment in agriculture and sustain and deepen the recovery process.


Dr Wiggins’ (SW) presentation outlined the progress of agriculture across Africa the considered fears and opportunities for the future. He suggested that regional and national level analysis was important, and using growth rates in Africa by UN region demonstrated that West and North Africa are clear front runners in terms of increasing agricultural production, performing comparably with Asia. Middle and Southern Africa was terrible, but there are some signs that growth of East Africa region may be accelerating. He also showed that net protection rates turned at a point in the mid 1980s, confirming Dr Badiane’s point on significance of structural adjustment.

Furthermore, SW demonstrated that food production per head is increasing - Africa is not running out of food. West and North Africa are again ahead of the rest of the continent, Middle and Southern Africa again disappointing.

Claims of no real change in yields are not true – it is complete fiction that yields not increasing over time. SW compares rice and millet production in Vietnam (cited as a great green revolution success; only Indonesia performed better and the difference between the two is not great) and Burkina Faso respectively and demonstrates that Burkina has performed better than Vietnam (yields are calculated on an index basis for fair comparison). Burkina has no special advantage; if anything at a disadvantage being landlocked and semi-arid. The data is backed up by village level analysis.

Success in Kenya is associated with access to services has grown rapidly, in some of the least developed areas of the country, this access has increased very fast - linked to decentralisation to district level authorities. And the success of onion farming in Tanzania demonstrates donors’ increasing technical efficiency.

SW outlined the following fears for African agriculture: involution; whether all investments in agriculture are still only enough to continue at subsistence level; blocked manufacturing – has Asia already taken all the opportunities?

Opportunities for Africa are: Expanded markets through inexorable regional integration which seems to be occurring (COMESA, EAC, ECOWAS); Big market in Asia to exploit exports especially in terms of vegetable oils and animal feed (open goal for exports to Asia from East Africa in particular); Large areas of unused land, such as the Guinea savannah which if it sees expanded production, has lots of potential. Also, 10% of unused land converted to biofuels could cancel out petroleum imports; Carbon sequestration could bring $50-100/ha to small holder farmers; Irrigation – there are examples of small-scale schemes (at village/household level) achieving success where expensive large scale projects have not; Urbanisation increasing demand for agricultural products.

Dr Wiggins concludes by looking at which key factors will decide between African agriculture facing heaven and hell:

  • External: climate change; Asian market openness; the real scale of land grabbing
  • Technology: possibility of triple green revolution (ecologically benign and locking carbon)
  • Environment: mitigation; carbon markets or other devices
  • Institutional innovation: success in urban and industrial economies – single biggest stimulus to farmers is cities demanding agricultural resources.


How much will certification for export crops be a barrier as much as an opportunity and is it as much about consumer compliance or is the drive for a positive change for African agriculture?

OB: certification isn’t an insurmountable barrier; e.g. Senegal has quadrupled non-traditional exports to the EU by systematically addressing bottlenecks in quality management, transport, market integration, thereby benefitting small-scale farmers. Certification does not only benefit western consumers but also helps ensure safer products for Africans. The cost of overcoming bottlenecks can be expensive, but there is no way around certification and the barriers can be overcome.

Africans in the Diaspora are wary of sending money for agriculture because of land ownership issues.

OB: remittances tend to be used for consumption and social needs rather than investment, people may invest for themselves but what they send is to make ends meet.

How important is it for local farmers to gain autonomy from international organisations

With regards international organisations, the issue is not standing up to them, but looking at the arguments based on their intrinsic value and acting in the best interest of the country.

High levels of investment are required for agricultural development. How are these figures derived and what do they contain? OB: the high Internal Rate of Return from research suggests it is still underfunded. For those countries who’ve met the 10% target for allocations of public budgets to agriculture, most have done so via subsidies into parastatals.

Are you confident CAADP will deliver change, and what change? OB: CAAPD success depends on implementation – if the mindset and direction can be sustained, if the global community aligns with it. Some countries will stick to it and will have better opportunities as a result. Cycles of policies need to be avoided: leaders today can make the same mistakes as leaders made 25 years ago because the memory of their failures starts to fade.

Can agriculture be ecologically benign? How much are you looking to promote organic farming and support farmers interested in alternative solutions when agro-chemical lobby is so strong?

SW: The challenge of climate change, that implies a drive to low-emissions agriculture) should force action to stop waste including over-use of chemicals, irrigation, and fertiliser; thereby pushing sustainable agriculture into the mainstream. Climate change thus becomes yet another reason to make changes that will sooner or later be necessary.

Has increased food production contributed to reducing malnutrition in North and West Africa?

SW: malnutrition in Burkina Faso has been unchanged for the last 10 years, despite its very strong agricultural growth performance. Senegal by contrast has been one of the worst performing West African nations for agriculture over the last 15 years, and has managed to make strong reductions in under-5 malnutrition. Burkina Faso needs to learn about nutrition from Senegal, and Senegal needs to learn about agricultural development from Burkina.


Since the 1990s, not only is agriculture getting more attention in Africa, but that growth rates are increasing. Moreover, there are notable opportunities for African farmers in higher prices, potential markets in Asia & underused land to put to use. But there are also stiff challenges ahead, not least in higher energy prices and climate change.

Where is the balance of these and what needs to be done? This seminar set the scene for the more specific topics that followed.