More than 60 percent of the 1.4 billion people in Africa live in rural areas and are engaged in the agricultural sector. The continent’s economy is highly dependent on agriculture, as the sector contributes 32 percent of the continent’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). However, agricultural productivity still lags behind compared to other emerging economies.
Africa is still behind in developing and adopting advanced agricultural technologies such as irrigation, fertilizer, pesticides and access to high-yield seeds that will enhance productivity. Only five percent of the cultivated land in Africa uses irrigation with the majority of farmers depending on seasonal rainfall. Farmers did not get access to fertilizers, with the average farmer using six to seven kg of fertilizer per hectare. This has meant that the output per hectare in Africa has fallen behind the levels registered in other emerging countries. Farming without using fertilizers, degrades the soil quality and depletes the nutrients in the long run.
Agriculture in the continent also faces major infrastructural problems like markets and finances in order to access those technologies. Agricultural productivity gaps across the world and across Africa are due to the technologies being used.
Fertilizer and irrigation are the two major agricultural inputs that maximize productivity and output. As the agriculture sector in the continent faces a multitude of challenges, a single policy tool or intervention will not fully address the problem. To enhance the sector, it will require improved access to multiple inputs, supportive government policies and a well-functioning supply and value chains.
Irrigation – Africa possesses nine percent of the world’s fresh water and that is nearly 4000 km3 of water per year, and the continent is home to some of the largest water resources in the world.
Despite the continent’s vast reserves of renewable and non-renewable water resources, only five to six percent of sub-Saharan Africa cropland has been irrigated. The agricultural productivity and yield thrive and fall depending on the seasonal rains that usually come through March-June.
Scarcity of rainfall and poor precipitation during this season, including droughts, escalate the food insecurity situation in most regions. Increasing irrigation will hold the greatest promise to enhance agriculture productivity and production in sub-Saharan African countries.
According to various scientific studies, increasing irrigation coverage will enhance the food security of 38 percent of the sub-Saharan population that live in arid and semi-arid regions.
Unfortunately, no more than six percent of Africa’s cropland is irrigated, and this value has shown a very slight increment over the years. By increasing the coverage of irrigation technology, it is estimated that an additional 96 million hectares of land in sub-Saharan African countries can be irrigated by smallholder farmers, which will potentially benefit up to 360 million people.
Such coverage would account for more than half of the currently cultivated land in sub-Saharan African countries. According to the recent World Bank report, sub-Saharan African countries have 1.4 billion cubic meters of renewable shallow groundwater, and non-renewable groundwater resources account for 660,000 cubic kilometers.
Irrigation significantly enhances agricultural output in the continent. To that effect designing effective policy tools and increasing the investment for irrigation programs are critical. Interventions aimed at increasing access to finance and providing training for the operation, repair and maintenance of equipment are some of the key factors that have enabled countries to make considerable progress.
Despite its multitude of advantages in enhancing the agricultural output, irrigation can bring an adverse environmental impact. It changes the quantity and quality of soil and affects the water volume for downstream regions. Irrigation also increases groundwater evaporation and moisture level in the ground and air, which results in change in the pattern of precipitation.
Putting a quota on water usage, while charging a small amount of money and adopting optimal water management will minimize adverse impacts brought by Irrigation. Adoption of policies in consideration with each countries context will bring the desired result.
Genetically modified crops and seeds (GMO)
Food insecurity is one of the major concerns throughout the continent. According to the latest FAO report, 256 million people remain hungry in Africa, an increase of 44 million from 2014. Of the total undernourished population in 2018, 17 million are in Northern Africa and 239 million in sub-Saharan Africa. There are 399 million people who are moderately food insecure in sub-Saharan Africa, i.e. they did not have regular access to nutritious and sufficient food, even if they were not necessarily suffering from hunger.
Recent estimates of food insecurity have suggested that as many as 73 million people in Africa were acutely food insecure. Africa’s population is expected to reach nearly 2.5 billion by 2050. The change in demographics (i.e. increased population), climate change, poor precipitation and lack of advanced agricultural technologies pose a major challenge to the continent’s food security.
Genetically modified seeds are one of the most widely used and accepted technologies that enhance agricultural yields and productivity for all farmers of all scales. The use of agriculturally modified seeds in many African countries increased crop yields and decreased pesticide use.
Despite these encouraging outcomes, adoption of new seed technologies are slow, mainly due to reliance on traditional seeds system and a lack of information and finance to access.
Various researches reveal that genetically modified seeds will decrease the nutritional value of traditional seeds. It is one of the root causes of epidemics such as obesity, diabetes, asthma, fertility problems, and even cancer. A hybrid approach to modify the genetic modification will minimize the side effects that will be brought to the GMO.
Finance the policies
Public-Private Partnerships (PPP) – Due to the lack of revenue base and financial means, African governments fail to undertake important investments that are needed to bring a structural transformation. A PPP offers a win-win solution and allows governments to benefit from the private sectors capital and innovation to provide public goods. PPP in agriculture provides opportunities to develop new technologies, conduct advanced researches, and deliver quality services.
Foreign Direct Investments (FDI) – limited investment in the agriculture sector is a key constraint for its progress and expansion. Policymakers give disproportionate attention to the sector, with the majority of African countries spending less than 10 percent of their public budget on agriculture. Domestic investments are mostly attracted to the service sector and are constrained by the limited availability of domestic credits.
FDIs can play a significant role in bridging the capital gap in the sector, and bring intangible assets specific to the firm, including technologies, production know-how, and expert managerial and marketing skills. It also creates a backward linkage with the local industries and smallholder farmers.
(Lidiya Kassahun is a Masters student in Development Practice at UC Berkeley)
Contributed by Lidiya Kassahun