Africa needs a green revolution: Governments can help, but need to get their policies right

Africa needs a green revolution: Governments can help, but need to get their policies right

Getahun Shumulo is what the Ethiopian government calls a “model farmer”. In the past he would toss seeds at random over his fields near Butajira, in the arable south. These days, using a plastic bottle in which he has cut a small hole, he plants them in pencil-straight lines. To keep the soil healthy he rotates his crops each year. Thanks to hardier seeds from the local agricultural office he now grows mostly maize, Ethiopia’s cheapest staple. “If you do everything the government tells you, you can grow more of it every year,” he says. After feeding his family of nine, he sells more than half his produce.

Farmers like Getahun are sowing the seeds of transformation. The more they grow, the more money they have. The more they spend, the more jobs they help create in market towns and cities. Meanwhile, many rural people are giving up farming entirely and moving to the towns. On average, they work longer hours than they once did in the fields, and are more productive.

Something akin to Asia’s rural development may, at last, be happening in parts of Africa. Since 2002 the proportion of African workers employed in agriculture has fallen from 66% to 57%. Yet the real value of agricultural production has grown at an average pace of 4.6% a year, double the rate between 1970 and 2000. Even so, the region is lagging behind. Most of the increase comes from using more land, rather than improved productivity.

A green revolution—the increase in agricultural yields seen in most parts of the poor world apart from Africa since the 1960s—is unlikely to succeed if government is obstructive. “Government is the most important partner,” says Boaz Keizire of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, a think-tank with its headquarters in Kenya, “but in Africa it is the weakest link.”

Ideally, governments would pay for public goods, such as research and roads, and regulate markets lightly but fairly. Too often in Africa, they fail at these basic tasks. In Uganda, for instance, the market is so awash with understrength bags of fertiliser and feeble seeds that farmers are reluctant to invest in them. Many are also unable to get their crops to the market because of bad roads.

Earlier African regimes were even worse. After independence many squeezed farmers mercilessly, forcing them to sell their crops for a pittance through state-run marketing boards. (The aim was to provide cheap food for city dwellers—the result was to deter investment in farming and encourage smuggling.)

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Then, in the 1980s, many African states liberalised trade, cut spending on agricultural research and subsidies, and hoped for the best. In 2003, with farm yields stagnating (see chart), the rhetoric shifted again. Governments pledged to allocate 10% of their budgets to agriculture. But by 2016 only ten countries were meeting that target, out of 44 with available data.

Malawi tops the public-spending charts, consistently allocating over 15% of its budget to agriculture. But much of that is swallowed up in a costly system of seed and fertiliser subsidies. The scheme has raised yields. It has also lined the pockets of the well-connected businessmen who win procurement contracts. It has had unintended consequences, too. Farmers who slap cheap fertiliser on their fields grow fewer nitrogen-fixing legumes, a cheap and green way of improving the soil.

Ethiopia, another big spender, offers a different approach. Farming output has grown by 6% a year since 2000, according to official figures, more than three times the rate in Malawi. Subsidies are relatively low. Instead, the government has pumped money into research, infrastructure and training. Its network of 72,000 “development agents”—experts sent to teach modern farming techniques—is Africa’s largest. They knock on Getahun’s door several times a month. “Sometimes they will even visit my fields when I’m not there,” he says approvingly. “They’ll ring me if they find something wrong.”

Reds in the seed beds

Why do approaches vary? Some researchers, such as Robert Bates and Steven Block of Harvard and Tufts universities, think that democracy improves policies by giving rural farmers more of a say. It does not always work out that way. In Malawi politicians use wasteful subsidies to win votes. By contrast, in authoritarian Ethiopia the government worked to avert the rural discontent that fed rebellions against its communist predecessors. It sees agricultural development as a way to build legitimacy.

Yet Ethiopia is not a model to emulate. In practice, its development agents “do everything” from tax collection to mobilising locals to attend meetings and vote for the ruling party, sighs an official in the Agricultural Transformation Agency, a government body. They are part of an oppressive system of state control, which works well in some places while failing spectacularly in others. In recent years rural state structures have been among the first targets for violent unrest.

Elsewhere, poor governance has derailed policy altogether. In Uganda the state’s training services for farmers have crumbled, along with the waning popularity of Yoweri Museveni, the president. In a quest for votes the focus has shifted from training farmers to handing out inputs. Since 2014 distribution has been run by the army, creating jobs for veterans. “It’s a military operation,” says one of the officers in charge, “but with no bombs or bullets.” Farmers complain that seedlings arrive late or do not grow. Grace Apiyo, a 30-year-old farmer in the north, says she has never received any help or advice from the government. The value added by the average Ugandan farm worker has fallen by a quarter since 2002.

Political obstacles are not insuperable. On the whole, governance in Africa has improved. And better data can make governments more accountable, says Shenggen Fan, the head of the International Food Policy Research Institute, a think-tank in Washington. But it is hard to uproot “good practice” from one context and replant it in another. Agricultural policy, like farming itself, is a messy business. It needs the right soils and careful husbandry to thrive.

This article appeared in the Middle East and Africa section of the print edition of The Economist

AGRA