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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  • Increased Stakeholder Participation

    Perhaps the most challenging of the five reform themes in Africa is to make agricultural research more client oriented and client driven through stakeholder participation. There is a general tendency to equate stakeholders solely with farmers. However, consumers, industry, and NGOs and CBOs are also important stakeholders that may wish to influence the agricultural research agenda. Three levels of stakeholder participation in agricultural research can be identified:

    1. Stakeholders are consulted in the determination of research priorities and often also in the research process itself.
    2. Stakeholders actually control the allocation of the research budget.
    3. Stakeholders participate in the funding of agricultural research and hence have a strong incentive to control proper allocation and use of the resources.

    Most of the stakeholder participation in Africa is of the first type, that of voluntary consultation. The second type of farmer participation is still relatively rare, but increasingly being promoted by the World Bank and a few other donors. The third type of farmer participation is quite common in Africa for research on commercial (export) crops. The World Bank sees important advantages in the (co-) financing of agricultural research by farmers. Besides the argument that those who benefit should pay, it is also an effective way to secure close involvement by farmers in the selection of research priorities. But in these commodity-specific research schemes, there is a risk of major and often unresolvable conflicts over the research agenda between, for example, smallholders and large plantation owners.

    Farmer participation is taking place in the problem identification and priority-setting phases of agricultural research, and increasingly during the implementation and evaluation phases. Participatory research approaches are being promoted strongly throughout Africa, but they are ineffective as technology transfer mechanisms because they only reach a tiny fraction of the farmers, and tacit knowledge does not easily extend to other farmers. Participatory research is an improvement on the old supply-driven linear research models and tends to work well for the small (although often economically important) minority of African farmers who are integrated into the market, well organized and capable of articulating their needs.

    Experience in countries such as Kenya, where promotion of farmer organizations has been on-going for several decades, indicates that maintaining them as functional entities is difficult. Smallholder farmer organizations for food crops (or non-commercial, livestock-keeping pastoralists) and government-sponsored cooperatives have generally not proved to be a success (Hussi et al., 1993). More recently, Cote d'Ivoire and Senegal have adopted the most far-reaching plans to involve farmers and farmer groups in agricultural research guidance. However in these cases, the poorest farmers (i.e., those engaged in subsistence food production and livestock keeping) have no prominent roles in the proposed models. Unless specific efforts are made to advance in this direction, encouraging smallholder participation that will generate a coherent voice to guide research is likely to remain elusive in the near future.

    The sheer numbers of smallholders relative to researchers, their lack of organization, the huge social and cultural diversity, the complexity of their farming systems and their unarticulated technology needs place them at the periphery of the agricultural innovation system. New thinking is needed to determine whether the research and extension linkages as currently conceived (and which, at best, will reach only 10-20 percent of farmers) have any likelihood of ever solving this problem. Currently subsistence farmer needs are largely unknown, but they are likely to require a mix of skills currently scarce among agricultural science graduates. It is axiomatic that an essential ingredient in solving the problem lies in the level of organization of smallholder farmers. Intelligent research on their different ways of social organization should provide clues as to how to help advance and stimulate what should be a diversity of forms of organization.

    The more enterprising smallholders in Africa are becoming more market-oriented producers and most actively pursuing strategies of income diversification beyond agriculture. Apparently, African rural households are increasingly turning to non-farm activities in order to meet their needs for cash income. This has major repercussions for farming as it has to compete within the rural household for labour and capital (Bryceson, 1999; 2000). Often the most able workers in the household (young men and women) pursue non-farm activities, leaving farming to the women, children and the elderly.

    Bryceson's study indicates there is a withdrawal of such households out of commercial agriculture back into low-external-input subsistence agriculture (Bryceson, 1999; 2000). She argues that the economic liberalization policies adopted in the 1980s and 1990s (i.e., elimination of input subsidies, dismantling of marketing boards) have worsened the conditions for using improved technologies. This sketch of developments among rural households in Africa makes clear that there are substantial differences among African smallholders regarding their interest in developing and adopting new agricultural technologies. Orthodox farmer participation mechanisms may easily overlook such differences.

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