Agriculture is a proven path to prosperity. No region of the world has developed a diverse, modern economy without first establishing a successful foundation in agriculture.
This is going to be critically true for Africa where, today, close to 70 percent of the population is involved in agriculture as smallholder farmers working on parcels of land that are, on average, less than 2 hectares.
Despite this, Africa has not done well in modernizing its agriculture sector. Many attempts were made to bring the green revolution to Africa in the 1960s and 1970s, some of which were successful in raising productivity (e.g. the maize revolution in Eastern and Southern Africa). But they were typically based on top-down, heavily subsidized and state-led approaches that proved costly and financially unsustainable, and had to be pared back as part of the structural adjustment programs (SAPs) beginning in the 1980s.
Although Africa’s agricultural growth rate improved after 2005, averaging about 7 percent per annum, this was driven more by a commodity price boom and expansion of the cropped area rather than by improvements in the underlying fundamentals.
Africa’s cereal yields started to grow after 2000, but still remain low compared to other countries, and the gaps are widening. Moreover, the gap in land and labor productivity between Africa and Asia also widened rather than closed over 2000–2014.
Within Africa, labor and land productivity improved the least in Southern Africa (excluding the Republic of South Africa) and improved the most in Eastern and Western Africa. Far from exploiting its potential of becoming a major breadbasket region, Africa continues to become more dependent on food imports. The aggregate annual food import bill is currently about US$35 billion and is estimated to rise to US$110 billion by 2025.
So why has Africa not done better in modernizing its agriculture sector and raising the productivity of its agricultural workers? A green revolution was always going to be a bigger challenge in Africa than in Asia given the continent’s diverse, rain-fed farming systems, limited irrigation, and sparse rural infrastructure. Africa needed a “rainbow” revolution to address its diverse array of crops, farming systems, and growing environments. In contrast, Asia was able to enjoy a green revolution based on increasing the yields of just two crops— rice and wheat, grown on vast areas of irrigated land where the same technologies were widely applicable.
Many things are now coming together in ways that give Africa the need, the opportunity, the means, and the ambition to transform its agriculture sector. The question now is not whether Africa needs an agricultural transformation, but rather what kind of transformation it needs.