Realizing the Promise and Potential of African Agriculture

Africa is rich in both natural and human resources, yet nearly 200 million of its people are undernourished because of inadequate food supplies.  Comprehensive strategies are needed across the continent to harness the power of science and technology (S&T) in ways that boost agricultural productivity, profitability, and sustainability -- ultimately ensuring that all Africans have access to enough safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs.  This report addresses the question of how science and technology can be mobilized to make that promise a reality.

Africa is rich in both natural and human resources, yet nearly 200 million of its people are undernourished because of inadequate food supplies.  Comprehensive strategies are needed across the continent to harness the power of science and technology (S&T) in ways that boost agricultural productivity, profitability, and sustainability -- ultimately ensuring that all Africans have access to enough safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs.  This report addresses the question of how science and technology can be mobilized to make that promise a reality.

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  • Mechanizing Operations

    "The man with the hoe" remains an apt description of the average African farmer today, just as it was 40 years ago. This situation must be changed; greater availability of machinery and other modern equipment is imperative. In every link of the long agricultural-production-marketing chain - seedbed preparation, planting, weed/pest/disease control, breeding, feeding, harvesting, processing, preservation, storage, transportation/distribution, marketing, and even cooking - appropriate levels of agricultural mechanization can provide the tools by which the inherent drudgeries and inefficiencies can be removed and productivity accelerated and enhanced (Odigboh, 2002: 225-300). An additional reason for more mechanization is the shortage of labour resulting from HIV/AIDS, which is decimating the younger generations.

    Mechanization had an enormous impact on labour productivity in many countries. Roseboom and colleagues (2004), for instance, show significant growth in agricultural productivity in most regions in the world, with the exception of southern, eastern, and western Africa, where progress in labour productivity has been dismal over the past 40 years (see also Figure 4.1). Almost 100 percent of the land in Europe and North America is cultivated by mechanical means, as opposed to 40-70 percent in Asia and Latin America. In Africa, only 1 percent of the land is worked mechanically; animal draught covers 10 percent and manual power is employed in 89 percent.

    To increase labour productivity, an effort should be made to significantly enhance the use of mechanized power in Africa. While mechanization is not a panacea for productivity increase, it is a strategic option that should be applied whenever appropriate (Le Thiec, 1996; Faure, 1994). South Africa has experienced significant productivity increases, predominantly in the commercial farming sector. Maize yields have tripled over the past four decades. Large increases in land and labour productivity have been evident in Nigeria as the labour force employed in primary agriculture dropped from 71 percent in 1970 to 33 percent in 2000, and the government took several macroeconomic measures to stimulate agricultural production - for instance, a ban on agricultural imports and subsidized agricultural inputs.

    The process of mechanization to further increase land and labour productivity worldwide has not come to an end. The possibility to continuously increase land and labour productivity is present and stimulated by the need to maintain an economically viable position in market-driven societies.

    Although the mechanization process has virtually just begun in most of Africa, progress is often slowed by the fact that most African countries rely on imported technology - many forms of mechanization are not yet appropriate to African agriculture simply because they are not known by, or not of sufficient priority to, American, European, and Asian machinery makers. In addition, machines are not usually equipped to handle mixed cropping systems that are a feature in Africa. Finally, most imported agricultural machines are so technically complex and costly that they are beyond the financial reach and managerial ability of the majority of African farmers.

    Another factor is that the appropriateness of implements for use by women is generally overlooked (IFAD/FAO/GOJ, 1998). Women's contribution to food-crop production ranges from 30 percent in the Sudan to 80 percent in the Congo, while their proportion of the active labour force in agriculture ranges from 48 percent in Burkina Faso to 73 percent in the Congo. A basic problem is that heavy implements, such as the ox-drawn five-tine cultivator built in Zimbabwe, are very difficult for women to use. Most report that they cannot handle this cultivator when turning and cannot turn the lever that adjusts its working width. They also complain about the zigzag harrow, saying that they cannot lift it around obstacles. There are also many complaints by 'the woman with the hoe' that this standard implement, designed for men, is just too heavy for her to use efficiently. Given the African proverb 'Without women we all go hungry,' feminization of agricultural implements is necessary. Meanwhile, it is ironic that only five percent of the resources provided through extension services in Africa are available to women. A priority task for scientists is to develop technologies that can help to reduce the hours of work and increase income per hour of work of women.

    A pragmatic solution is proposed for increasing the use of machines and other implements. Suitable indigenous firms and organizations should be encouraged to do the local manufacturing of machines and equipment for agriculture and rural industrial activities, possibly in partnership with overseas manufacturers. Only in this way will the machines needed for the specific African situation be developed. Further, local production and maintenance will be more cost-effective.

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