Contemporary Crises

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Challenges for Agricultural Sustainability in Sub-Saharan Africa

In Sub-Saharan Africa, challenges for agricultural sustainability are huge. They encompass the importance of increasing agriculture productivity, addressing the climate change issues and promoting agro-industrialization. Although Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest area of arable uncultivated land in the world and significant agricultural growth potential, most African farmers are still smallholders, cultivating low-yield staple food crops on small plots with a minimal use of inputs and of water control systems. In addition, about 220 people living in Sub-Saharan Africa still suffer from chronic undernourishment and Africa’s food import bill totaled about 35 billion USD per annum, which puts additional strain on scarce foreign exchange reserves.

Increasing agriculture productivity could be achieved through many ways, which include implementation of modern technologies, appropriate land tenure, better access to land and finance, improved agricultural mechanization and use of irrigation, as well as the adoption of high yielding crop varieties. Because agriculture productivity depend on pests, soils, temperature and water, but also on market access and prices, a one-size-fits-all approach is likely to fail. However, innovation and technologies, including new information and communication technology-based services in the agriculture sector, can significantly enhance productivity gains. For instance, mobile phones, geographical information systems and remote sensing could be used for land registration, crop inventories, a common information system platform, dissemination of market prices, traceability or green practices. Significant public investments to facilitate access to improved technologies and to develop rural infrastructure would promote a structural transformation of African agriculture. Land reforms should clearly define property rights, ensure the security of land tenure and enable land to be used as collateral. Regarding land tenure, women who are actively engaged in agriculture, face particular severe challenges. Customary laws and rules governing ownership and transfer of land rights generally confer title and inheritance rights upon male family members in Sub-Saharan Africa.

In the context of climate change challenges, to further propel agricultural transformation in Sub-Saharan Africa, agriculture insurance, sustainable resource management plans and integrated rural development strategies could be used as efficient measures. The region has one of the most vulnerable agriculture worldwide to extreme weather events, such as drought and floods, due to its heavy reliance on rain-fed agriculture, low adaptive capacity and limited infrastructure development. While the terms of the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) expect governments to devote 10% of national spending to agriculture in order to support water management, intensify irrigation, reduce the continent’s dependence on rain-fed agriculture, and increase resilience to climate change, public expenditure in agriculture is far below the 10% target. It is also imperative that the continent learn lessons from other parts of the world, in particular Asia and Latin America, including how to mitigate the misuse of agrochemicals and develop a green agriculture. There is often a trade-off between protecting the environment and enhancing agricultural productivity. Soil and water conservation techniques, usually supported by public investment, represent a good alternative to adapting to climate change. They respectively range from mulching, compost, manure, and fertilizer such as NPK (Nitrogen, Phosphorous, and Potassium) and from dugs and constructed structures such as stony ropes, half-moons and water cuvettes. Finally, insufficient cash income and the difficult access to the financial and insurance sectors in Sub-Saharan Africa hampers subsistence farmers’ ability to develop, invest and mitigate climate change damages. The challenges of providing acceptable collateral for agricultural lending and adapting loan repayment schedules to crop cycles are huge.

For promoting agro-industrialization emphasis should be given on increasing competitiveness through closing the infrastructure gap, skills gap, reforming regulations and institutions, deepening value chains, attracting foreign direct investment through preferential taxes, and creation of industrial clusters and special economic zones. The main challenge is to promote private sector development in agriculture and to support the connection between smallholders and medium-large scale firms. At the national level, greater integration of farmers into agriculture value chains is expected to boost farmers’ benefits and facilitate agri-business. It would upgrade production and food security systems and eventually develop regional and global agriculture value chains and increase trade, particularly within the Sub-Saharan region. Before integrating global value chains, it requires farmers to deliver high-quality products at competitive prices and satisfy the norms and standards set out by their trading partners. Governments have a key role to play in developing functioning agricultural markets and encouraging investments in technology and innovation. Limited public funding in the agriculture sector has so far prevented the provision of adequate institutional support and suitable business environment, in turn hindering private sector participation and investment in agriculture.

In conclusion, addressing the challenges for agricultural sustainability in Sub-Saharan Africa would also support Africa’s structural transformation process and economic growth. First, it would enable the labor force to move from the agriculture sector into other sectors and help developing the manufacturing and services sectors. There is a high momentum behind developing and promoting the agricultural sector as a catalyst to industrialization and agri-business development. Second, it would allow African farmers to better manage and integrate the entire agricultural value chain from the farm to storage, transport, processing, marketing and distribution. This would not only improve food supply but also create additional revenues and jobs. Finally, farmers would be able take advantage of large markets, increase trade and exports of agricultural products and progressively integrate regional and global value chains.

Audrey Verdier-Chouchane is Chief Research Economist at the African Development Bank. She is co-editor of the Open Access book Building a Resilient and Sustainable Agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa.