For centuries, Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) farmers have actively managed their farms and the land around them. They have invested in crop rotation and planting landraces of diverse crops, and in applying crop residues, composts, animal manure, and more recently chemical fertilizers, to increase productivity and produce more healthy crops and pastures.
In the last few generations these approaches have come under pressure from increasing human and livestock populations, and increasing climate variability. The resulting reduction in land size, the time available for fallowing the land, and the reduced pasture area has led to increasing rates of land degradation and has forced households to farm on more marginal and less productive soils. As a result, more than half of the world’s 1.5 billion hectares of arable land is moderately or severely degraded leading to low crop yields.
Providing food, feed and fiber for a growing global population is a major development challenge. In many areas of the world the potential for increasing crop yields is limited. In others, like SSA, there are large yield gaps between what farmers get from local varieties and the yield potential of improved varieties. Reducing this yield gap is a major opportunity and challenge to address household food security and countries’ food sovereignty.
Most of the agricultural growth in SSA can be attributed to expansion of the land area cultivated rather than through an increase in agricultural factor productivity. For example, in the period 2001–2008, 69 percent of the observed growth in agricultural output was attributed to expansion in land area, 14 percent to favorable prices or terms-of-trade effects, and only 17 percent to increased use of enhanced inputs and to technical change. This area expansion cannot continue forever, owing to negative environmental impacts, and land use change pressure due to an increasing global population.
Therefore, the continent needs increased and sustainable investments to sustainably increase agricultural productivity. Increasing agricultural productivity is of critical importance for sustainable and inclusive growth in SSA. There is strong and clear evidence that sustained investments to enhance productivity in agriculture, and the broader rural economy, has a large impact on growth and poverty reduction.
The challenge remains to identify what factors are behind the relatively low intensification and yields, and the persisting yield gaps in much of SSA. An additional challenge is to identify what factors allow some countries to make progress and leave others lagging behind.
For many smallholder households caught in poverty traps, land is the only significant capital asset that they have from which they can generate economic livelihoods. These households have labor, but returns to this labor use are low. In many environments they depend on exploitation of natural capital with limited improvement, resulting in degradation of these scarce natural resources. In most smallholder farming areas, the root cause of poverty and food security is limited adoption of more productive and diversified agricultural technologies.
Slow technological uptake results from several interrelated and mutually reinforcing factors: inefficient agricultural input and output markets, low profitability of on-farm production, low investment, soil nutrient mining and soil degradation, lack of access to certified seed of improved varieties and quality fertilizers, low crop yields, low purchasing power and severe resource constraints, dysfunctional local institutions, and weak scientific capacity in national agricultural research, training and extension services.
Breaking the poverty traps requires delivery of science-based technological, institutional, market and policy solutions to farmers at multiple levels. Agricultural productivity can therefore be improved through more efficient agricultural input and output markets (agro-dealers, aggregators and grain traders, warehouse receipt systems and agricultural commodity exchanges); expanded farmers’ access to credit (microfinance institutions and insurance companies); integrated soil fertility management; improved crop varieties; and better ways of organizing farmers for technology testing, dissemination, adoption and diffusion, seed and fertilizer distribution and product assembly.
To achieve this requires not just one, but several complementary and integrated investments to translate these solutions into income growth and poverty reduction. This, in turn, requires public policies and investments to transform the rural economy, focusing on improving farm productivity and production through marketing systems, processing facilities, functional rural labor markets, accessible financial and rural credit markets, efficient training and extension systems, favorable land tenure policies, participatory agricultural research and developing small-scale rural industries.