Food security in Africa needs a tailored approach, suggests new research

The blind adoption of ‘solutions’ from other continents won’t work for African agriculture.

Print Friendly and PDF
Share story:  

Atlas: Research for a better world

Each month the Elsevier Atlas Award recognizes research that could significantly impact people's lives around the world.

February 2015 winner (free access):

Agricultural intensification in Ghana: Evaluating the optimist’s case for a Green Revolution
Alejandro Nin-Pratt, Linden McBride
Food Policy, Volume 48, October 2014, Pages 153-167

A one-size-fits-all approach to African agriculture development will not lead to growth, suggests new research published in Food Policy. The authors of the study say that instead of blindly adopting 'solutions' that worked in other continents, governments and researchers should consider the context more closely and develop a tailored approach.

The researchers suggest that developing new technologies – to improve the output of tree and root crops that are predominant in Africa, and reduce the need for manual labor – would be more effective than copying the approaches that worked in Asia and Latin America.

In the 1960s and 70s, there was a dramatic increase in the production of crops like wheat, maize and rice in Asia and Latin America, thanks to new varieties of crops with a higher yield, fertilizers and irrigation. This resulted in a 'Green Revolution'. African governments set up policies and programs to mirror this approach, but the Revolution didn't reach Africa.

Today, soaring populations and decreases in the amount of land available for food production in Africa have led some to believe the Asian Green Revolution may be replicated. The Asian Green Revolution was spurred on by labor-intensive technology, so for a similar approach to work in Africa, labor has to be abundant and cheap.

However, the authors of the new study say that soaring populations don't mean cheap labor; the renewed optimism, they say, is misleading. Focusing on the land scarce – labor abundant model overlooks the factors that led to the first fall; more intensive farming methods, new fertilizers and high-yield crops may not be the solutions they appear to be, at least not for all areas in Africa.

"Assuming Africa is an appropriate setting for another Asian-style Green Revolution is misleading and could result in, yet again, a frustrated attempt to attain sustainable agricultural growth," said Dr. Alejandro Nin-Pratt, lead author of the study.

The researchers selected Ghana as a case study. For the Asia hypothesis to work in Africa, there would need to be evidence of improved varieties of cereal crops being used, along with an intensive use of fertilizer in areas of high population density. It would also need to show that these approaches enable farmers to make more money.

The results revealed no evidence of increased food production reflecting the Asian Green Revolution. The results also showed that the cost of labor in Ghana still limits the development of labor-intensive technologies. Despite increasing populations, the relative cost of labor is still high.

"Smallholders don't often use technologies like fertilizer that were developed for cereal crops because they have other options," explained Dr. Nin-Pratt. "It's more effective for them to grow different crops that demand less fertilizer and produce higher output per hour worked, like cassava, and supplement their income with service jobs in the cities. Rapid population growth has not necessarily made Africa more suitable for an Asian style Green Revolution."

The results may not be replicated in every African country, but showing that the Asian Green Revolution approach is unsuccessful in Ghana suggests that it cannot be applied blindly to the whole continent.

There is more research to be done, say the authors. The development of technology more suitable for Africa, for example to increase productivity of root and tree crop production systems and a more labor-saving technology package for cereal production, will be a path worth exploring.


The View from Ghana

It's vital to consider the context from the ground – what's happening in African agriculture has an impact on the effectiveness of interventions. The World Bank provides financial and technical assistance to developing countries, including for agriculture. Johannes Jansen, a Senior Agricultural Economist, works in the Ghana Office of The World Bank. He believes that technology holds the key to agricultural growth in Africa.

"Just like everywhere else in the world, the suitability of agricultural production systems in Africa is ultimately a function of agro-ecological and socio-economic conditions that together determine profitability. Nin-Pratt and McBride elegantly point out that because these conditions are much different in Africa than in Asia, agricultural production technologies developed for Asian conditions are unlikely to be adopted on a wide scale in Africa.

"The key to making African countries more food secure and improve the competitiveness of agriculture relative to that of non-agricultural activities lies in developing technologies that increase labor productivity in agriculture and therefore lower unit labor costs. Examples of such labor-saving, land-augmenting technologies may include private sector-led mechanization (esp. for land preparation and weeding), laser land leveling, and high pressure irrigation. Adoption of these types of technology may in turn foster the adoption of complementary, more traditional Green Revolution technologies such as fertilizers, improved seeds etc."


A Conversation with Alejandro Nin-Pratt

Alejandro Nin-Pratt (left) receives his Atlas from Brad Fenwick (right), Senior Vice President of Academic and Government at ElsevierA one-size-fits-all approach to agriculture hasn't proved effective in Africa, where the situation is much more complex than policy might assume. We caught up with author Alejandro Nin-Pratt to find out why he chose Ghana as a case study, and what he thinks can be done to boost agriculture in Africa.

PodcastIn this podcast Alejandro Nin-Pratt from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) talks about the challenges to agriculture in Ghana, and what policy-makers can do to help.


What are the main reasons that the Asian and Latin American approaches have not worked in Africa?
It has to do with two things: the characteristics of the technology that was promoted in Asia and Latin America, and the specific agricultural characteristics of Africa. That mix is what worked in Asia or Latin America, but precisely what is not working for Africa.
The problem in Asia is high population density and land scarcity. Because of that the technology is labor intensive – it uses a lot of labor and tries to save land. The conditions in most countries in Africa are completely different, so what happens in Africa is the opposite – you have a lot of land but relatively scarce labor. So when you try to apply that technology there, it doesn't work.
Also, what was developed was a technology to increase the productivity of cereals – for example rice in Asia. In Africa, tree crops and roots like cassava are important for lots of systems in many countries. And so we've got a technology developed for a high population density region for cereals that we are trying to use in Africa, where the technology neglects some of the main production systems in Africa that are not cereal based.

Why has policy focused on approaches that were applied in different contexts to what we see in Africa?
In development a lot of things work in this way, where we've found something that works and then we try to use it elsewhere. In the case of Africa, now there's a return of these policies. For me what triggered this new wave of trying to apply these policies again is the growth in the African population. Because of very rapidly growing population density, the development community can think that the conditions that played well for this kind of technology in Asia might be playing out now in Africa.

What first interested you in this area, and how did you become involved in the research?
I've been working in production and productivity issues for a long time – that's basically my area. I'm originally an agronomist who has moved forward to become an economist. I was first linked to Africa while I was working on my PhD – that was my first contact with Africa. Before I worked in Latin America, I'm from South America originally. Since then I've been working related to Africa for the last 12 years at least. I lived in Ethiopia, I lived in Nairobi, and most of my work has been linked to Africa.

What are the main challenges in researching agricultural interventions in Ghana?
One of the problems in Africa when you're doing research like this is data. I think if you ask any researcher they would say that one of the weak links of research in Africa is data availability and the quality of data. For instance, if you look at data from East Asia or South Asia, the quality and availability of the data has really moved forward in those places compared to Africa, where data availability is still a problem. It's one of the main constraints that we find.

Why did you choose Ghana as a case study? What characterizes agriculture there?
The advantage of Ghana was that it is a very high densely populated country: we can test the Asian hypothesis that might work there, because we expect that high population density might provide the conditions for the success of the technology.
In Ghana you have a high population density, which should make labor cheaper because you have a relative abundance of labor. However, Ghana is a major exporter of natural resource products. When you have an economy based on natural resources, normally you expect that the cost of labor will be high. What happens is that non-tradable goods become very expensive relative to the rest of the world. But it means that, in the case of Ghana, labor costs go up. Because of that, high-level costs are a problem for the Green Revolution kind of technology.
Also, the agroecology of Ghana is very diverse, so you get a sense of different agroecologies you see around Africa – Ghana has very distinctive agroecologies, like the forest region where the cocoa is planted, then you have the savanna which is a lot drier where cereals and cassava are grown. So you get a good sample of the whole of Africa looking at what's happening in different agroecologies.

What surprised you about the results of the research?
Because of population growth, the Green Revolution technology should work in those areas with high population density. If there's a case for the Green Revolution in Africa, we expect to see a lot of fertilizer being used there, and less fertilizer being used in lower density regions. When we looked at that, what we found was exactly the opposite: in very high population dense regions, the use of fertilizer was lower. The use of fertilizer was higher in low population density areas.

What that tells you is that, even in low population density areas, the technology using high levels of fertilizer is not attractive in Ghana. Instead of using fertilizers, farmers increase the output per hectare by using crops that increase significantly the output per hectare without the need of a lot of fertilizers, like for instance cassava. They also complement their income by working in the service sector in towns or in cities.

What can policy makers do to support sustainable agricultural growth in Africa?
What we suggest is that if we are going to think of increasing production and productivity in Africa, first you have to start thinking of the main African production systems, which are not cereal based. We're still not working on what matters in many African countries, which is this other system that includes cassava, plantain, and commercial tree crops like cocoa and coffee. There's not much research into developing technologies for those production systems, and there's a lot to be done in that area – investing in or developing technologies that could be applied to those systems.
It may also be beneficial to try to develop a more commercial sector that could start applying some technologies that work in other places – technologies that will save labor, which implies a more capitalized kind of farm; some more capital intensive farms could be the engine of growth in African agriculture. Of course this is a very general statement and we would need to look at specific regions, production systems and conditions in different countries. But my sense is that without a core commercial farm sector in Africa, increasing production and productivity will be difficult.

What's the next step for your research?
I will still be working on technical change and technology. One of the things I'll be working on in the next few years is taking a look at public investment in research and development in Africa to see where the investment to develop new technologies is going. This is a key issue – if we're saying that Green Revolution technology is not going to work in most cases in Africa, then what Africa is doing to adapt new technologies to the main production systems in Africa is going to be key.


Interest in this story

This Atlas story helped generate additional interest in the research:

Asian-Style Green Revolution Unsuitable for Africa SciDev Net

Africa: To Bring Green Revolution to Africa, Countries Must Develop New Technologies


About Food Policy

Food PolicyFood policy publishes research on policy in the food industry, including its forming, implementing and analyzing policy. Research and reviews in the journal cover topics including food production, food security, nutrition, food safety, technological innovation and environmental sustainability.

What the Special Issues Editor of Food Policy, Colin Poulton, said about the research:

Although the agro-ecological conditions and resource endowments of much of Africa are importantly different from the conditions prevailing in the cereal baskets of Asia, many efforts to raise agricultural production in Africa have focused on introducing high-yielding cereal varieties plus chemical fertilizers to African agriculture. This paper questions the appropriateness of this approach, using Ghana as a case study.

Ghana has an intermediate level of population density by African standards but also one of the highest rates of urbanization, such that labor is still scarce in many rural areas. The authors argue that rising market demand for agricultural products drives labor-saving innovation in agricultural production under these conditions. They employ an innovative combination of techniques to describe patterns of input use and production on efficient farms across three major production zones of Ghana. They show that varying resource endowments and the agro-ecological suitability of different areas for crops with very different demands for land, labor and inputs (cocoa, cassava, yams, rice etc.) are important determinants of the observed patterns of production and input use on these efficient farms.

The findings are an important contribution to debates about future pathways for agricultural growth in Africa, showing that an input- and labour-intensive approach will not suit all areas (and possibly will not suit many). The paper is part of a special issue of Food Policy that explores the diversity of land and labour endowments across and within countries of Africa and seeks to derive lessons for agricultural development policy.


Further Reading

comments powered by Disqus

Share story: