Doubling Productivity and Incomes of Smallholder Farmers in Africa

By Joe DeVries

Despite the many gains made in Africa’s agricultural in the last decade or so, the sector continues to present a number of paradoxes. Although it is home to close to 60 per cent of the world’s uncultivated land and is widely believed to hold the potential of becoming one of the world’s bread baskets, Africa’s food import bill stands at a staggering $35-50 billion per year.

Additionally, although recent trends are promising, current yields of major crops remain very low compared to other regions. African cereal yields, for example, are just over one-third of the developing world average.  As a result, the continent accounts for only 10 per cent of the total global agricultural output despite being home to 25 per cent of the world’s arable land.

The imperative to reverse this situation has never been greater. As global population edges toward 10 billion people by 2050, Africa’s share is expected to reach 2 billion.  In order to feed everyone, the world will need to increase total food output by at least 70 per cent. Given the large potential increases in crop yields that are possible through the adoption of some fairly rudimentary technologies, Africa represents the world’s biggest opportunity for filling this gap.

The push to increase productivity and broadly improve incomes in Africa will only be realized if smallholder farmers, who make up 70 per cent of the population and produce 80 per cent of the food consumed on the continent, are at the forefront of strategies for agricultural transformation. They must be provided with the support needed to transition from farming as a solitary struggle to survive to well-informed production centers with access to the knowledge, technologies, and markets they need.

For starters, access to quality seed of improved varieties of the continent’s main staple food crops will be critical. It should be noted that currently, only about 20 per cent of farmers in Africa use such seeds.

AGRA’s work in the last 10 years has shown that change is, indeed, possible. Together with our partners, we have worked to increase the supply of certified seed of higher-yielding crop varieties through support for intensified breeding efforts and investments in private, African seed companies in 18 countries. This has resulted in an increase in the number of private, independent seed companies from 10 in 2007 to over 100 today. These companies have produced and sold an estimated 475,805 MT of improved seeds, and continue to churn out well over 100,000 MT of new seeds every year.

The increased use of improved seeds, fertilizers, and better farming practices have already enabled millions of farmers to more than double their yields, leading to the production of an additional 4 million MT of cereals, pulses, soybeans and groundnuts in 2015 alone. In monetary terms, this represents about US$ 2.2 billion.

As surplus harvests have become more common, the linkages between farmers and markets have become more important, as functioning markets act as triggers for increased production.

Farmers should also be cushioned against the new reality of climate change that appears poised to increase the frequency of both droughts and floods.

The recent drought in Southern Africa illustrates this point well.  In 2015-16, Southern Africa experienced its worst drought in 35 years.  Maize production was reduced by over 10 million metric tons, and over 10 million people were forced to depend on food aid.  In 2017, the rains returned, and several countries in the region are expecting to export food.  Protecting Southern Africa’s agriculture against drought, therefore, could transform this region into a dependable supplier of food for the rest of the world.

As part of the adaptation strategies, efforts should be made to increase the amount of irrigated land and improve water management in primarily rain-fed agricultural systems. The opportunities for irrigated agriculture in Africa are enormous.  Despite the continent harbouring about 10 per cent of the world’s fresh water resources, only about 6 per cent of its cultivated land is currently under irrigation, compared to more than 30 per cent of land in Asia.

Additionally, we must be deliberate about involving the youth of the continent – a full 65 per cent of the total population – in agriculture. Together with women, they are a great asset for sector as sources of specialized labour, innovation and market opportunities.  Women and youth should be empowered and disparities in economic participation eliminated. Evidence shows that when given similar access to resources as men, women’s productivity increases. For example, if Kenyan women were empowered to apply the same volumes and quality of inputs as men, the gross value of maize, beans and cowpea yields on their plots would increase by 22%

We should also make maximum use of mobile phones that have become almost ubiquitous across the continent and are helping to revolutionize financial access among smallholder farmers. Today, more than 750 million Africans already use mobile phones, and rural connectivity averages 70 per cent. Yet only about 10 per cent of rural households in Africa are linked to any formal financial institution.  Financial institutions should be encouraged to develop innovative products targeting smallholder farmers as customers through ICT.

For African agricultural transformation to occur on a scale that creates impact, an enabling policy environment is an absolute requirement. Thankfully, most governments are actively strengthening relevant national agricultural policy systems with a focus on input and output markets and associated trade and regulatory environments.

Feeding Africa has been a goal of the international community for many years.  Recent data show that this goal is now within reach.  Hence, there has never been a better time than now to invest in African agricultural development.

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