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Transforming Africa’s Agriculture: Rising Productivity on Farms Must Lead the Way

Francis Kobina Appiah Abebrese

Pictured here is a community garden in Niger that Mercy Corps helped the local women start. Photo courtesy of USAID via Flickr Commons

Over the last decade, Africa's agricultural production has improved notably. Between 2000 and 2014, the production of major crops like cereals increased by 69%, while production of roots and tubers increased by 62%[i]. A recent Agriculture Status Report by the Alliance for Green Revolution for Africa (AGRA) shows that in many countries, such as Ghana, Rwanda, and Burkina Faso, the growth in production has improved the lives of farmers' households. Unfortunately, despite the output growth, food insecurity on the continent remains a major challenge with over 232.5 million people (or nearly 20% of the population) in Africa still suffer starvation and malnutrition. Thus, Africa is far from reaching the Sustainable Development Goal 2 of eliminating hunger.

One major reason for the failure to eliminate hunger is that the production improvements over the past decade largely focused on expanding cropland, rather than increasing crop productivity (crop productive per farmer per hectare of land). This is unsustainable because expansion of cropland is limited and fixed.. This lack of productivity growth is both a reflection and reinforcement of Africa's well-known agricultural bottlenecks; even though Africa is land-rich, with about half of the world's uncultivated arable lands, customary land tenure systems make it difficult to access land and use it for commercial agriculture. Additionally, irrigation usage, technology adoption, mechanization, and other modern inputs are generally lower than they could be on the continent. As a result of the low productivity growth, there is now consensus among experts and major institutions that while the farm-level production improvement is good news and must continue, it is not enough. The public policy agenda of Africa now looks at the bigger picture of agricultural transformation. But, what is agricultural transformation? According to the 2017 African Transformation Report published by the African Center for Economic Transformation (ACET), agricultural transformation a process that leads to higher productivity on farms, makes farming more commercially oriented, and bolsters the link between farming and other sectors of the economy through inputs, outputs, services, and finance.

Agricultural transformation – new consensus, new momentum

Many African governments are beginning to look at agriculture through a transformational lens. For example Ethiopia's, national economic transformation agenda  revolves around transforming agriculture as necessary condition to support industrial and economic transformation. Agricultural transformation, which according to ACET ensures a modern, competitive, and environmentally sustainable agriculture sector, has become part of the countries' main agenda and features in almost all continental and national policy documents. At the continental level, typical examples include the Feed Africa Strategy of the African Development Bank, the African Union Malabo Declaration from June 2014, and the associated Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) process. A number of government, private, and donor-based organizations, such as the ACET and the African Development Bank (AfDB), are working to create awareness to shape policy towards transforming the agricultural sector in Africa.

Agriculture transformation is gradually becoming the new development strategy for many economies on the continent. This strategy was utilized by many of today's successfully emerging economies, such as China, Brazil, and India. As Isabelle Tsakok, former World Bank agriculture and rural development economist, addressed in her book entitled Success in Agricultural Transformation: What It Means and What Makes It Happen, no country with a major agriculture sector will be able to become a wealthy industrialized economy without transforming agriculture. Africa has clear advantages that can be exploited to drive agricultural transformation: abundant uncultivated arable land, estimated at over half the world's total; a young and growing labor force; tropical and subtropical climates that permit long and multiple growing seasons; and rising market opportunities. The continent can leverage these to realize a wealthy industrialized economy in the near future. Now, how can Africa capitalize on these opportunities? What is the foundation needed to begin?

Productivity is the key to transformation

Most development economists concur that an agenda for agricultural transformation must begin with serious improvements in productivity[i]. With the right policies, institutions, and resources, Africa can benefit from productivity increases by adapting Green Revolution techniques that raised agricultural productivity in Asia and Latin America, particularly in wheat, rice, and maize. Increased productivity and output in a modern agricultural sector would, beyond improving food security, sustain agro-processing, create employment, and boost incomes across society. With higher productivity, farmers can grow enough food not only to feed their households but also to sell the surplus, affording them the opportunity to acquire cash to diversify their diets and satisfy non-food needs. Increases in productivity will also generate surpluses that farmers could sell to manufacturing companies to be used as cheap raw material to support competition in the industrial sector through agro-processing.

First, to achieve higher productivity, African farmers need to increase the adoption of productivity-enhancing measures, including irrigation, improved seeds, fertilizer, and modern farm management practices. African farmers should look to strategies that yielded success in Asia, given the several commonalities between Asia and Africa such as abundant land and labor. Currently, the usage of productivity enhancing inputs on the continent is woefully low. For example, less than 10% of farms in Africa are actually irrigated, and the adoption rate of certain important food crops like maize is low. While the rate of mechanization has improved, Africa is still lagging behind the rates exhibited during Asia's improvement when they were catching up in the 1960s.

As Africa remains the only continent yet to align with the Green Revolution and transform its agriculture sector, if policymakers fail to tackle the challenges that affect productivity on farms, the transformation of agriculture sector, and by extension the overall economy, will remain at a dead-end. Issues of post-harvest loses, agro-processing, marketing, and distribution will continue to be important to the sector, but the much talked about agricultural transformation will remain elusive unless governments and donors mobilize the resources to increase investments to boost productivity.

Francis Abebrese is an economist by profession and is currently an Economic and Research Analyst at the African Center for Economic Transformation (ACET) where he serves as the Research Coordinator for ACET's flagship program — the African Transformation Report. He is also a current Southern Voices Scholar Network for Peacebuilding. 


[i] Faostat online, accessed July 6, 2017.

[ii] Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa (2016) and African Center for Economic Transformation (2017-forthcoming)

About the Author

Francis Kobina Appiah Abebrese

Francis Kobina Appiah Abebrese

Former Southern Voices Network for Peacebuilding Scholar;
Economic and Research Analyst, African Center for Economic Transformation (Ghana)

Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and US-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial US-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in US-Africa relations.    Read more