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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  • Investing in Environmentally Sound Development Pathways

    Land degradation and the unsustainable use of natural resources are limiting the potential for agricultural development in Sub-Saharan Africa. Encroachment into fragile areas, reduced duration of fallows, continued low levels of input use and limited adoption of available resource-conserving practices underlie the problem. Improvements in marketing and access to input services and credit will be important for promoting more widespread adoption of these technology options. In some cases, farmers also need more secure property rights or more effective local institutions for managing common property resources and encouraging investments in longer-run land-conserving technology options.

    Governments need to develop more effective land-use planning strategies and the means to implement them within the framework of customary land tenure arrangements, which mostly work well in Africa. Growing population pressure can sometimes help induce the adoption of labour-intensive technology options to improve land and other resources and reduce degradation (Boserup, 1965; Tiffen et al.,1994), but in practice sustainable pathways to intensification typically require other key interventions such as improved access to roads and markets, non-farm income-earning opportunities and improved technology options (Pender et al., 2001).

    A case can be made for selective subsidies on strategic inputs, such as fertilizers, until infrastructure can be improved to the extent that prices paid and received by African farmers are more in line with international competitors. During the 1990s inorganic fertilizer use in Sub-Saharan Africa decreased from 10 to 8 kilograms per hectare. Most of this was applied to commercial non-food crops and some to food crops such as maize that are widely traded. The current annual rates of nutrient depletion of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium between 50 and 100 kilograms per hectare in Africa means overexploitation of already depleted natural resources is rapidly leading to a downward spiral of productivity. Intergenerational equity hence provides an additional rationale for fertilizer subsidies; Breman and Debrah (2003: 157) point out that 'The paradox of African agriculture is that agricultural development is inhibited at once by overexploitation of the land because of overpopulation, and by poor market development because of underpopulation.' They refer to an additional paradox whereby those African countries that subsidized fertilizer prices or had government price control had growth rates of fertilizer consumption in the 1990s of 1 percent per year, whereas those without controls or subsidies experienced a 6 percent annual growth rate. Clearly soil fertility conservation and management policy remains a complex issue in Africa.

    Government, NGOs, community-based organizations, the private sector and individuals all have a potential role in the dissemination of inputs and information on technology options that will lead to improved land management. Here information and communications technology can be a catalyst, as described in Chapter 4. In general, strong community-based institutions offer the greatest potential for the exchange of information on new technology options. Strengthening farmer organizations and other community-based organizations will facilitate innovation and adoption of natural resource conservation technology options. NGOs also have significant potential to have a lasting impact on land management through the development and dissemination of land management technology options and by organizing communities for successful collective action. Despite the potential for increased involvement of NGOs, community-based organizations and the private sector, governments still have critical roles to play in providing adequate finance for technology development and dissemination efforts, ensuring that environmental and other externalities are taken into consideration and pursuing strategies suited to marginal areas and the poorest rural people.

    Although many of the interventions already mentioned will improve incentives and local capacities for rural people to manage natural resources in more sustainable ways, this will typically not be sufficient to achieve the levels of environmental stewardship demanded today by national and international interests. There remains a fundamental problem - markets do not reward rural people for the environmental services they provide when they grow trees, protect watersheds, or conserve biodiversity. Without such compensation, rural people will provide less of these services than desired by society at large. This will result in further environmental degradation, with consequent adverse impacts on agricultural productivity growth and food security.

    A common solution to this problem is for government to regulate some resource management practices. For example, tree cutting is often banned or regulated in hillside areas, and certain land uses may be prohibited at sites where they are particularly degrading. At the extreme, sites of especially high environmental value are often converted to parks or conservation areas. Such approaches tend to work against the interests of local people, worsen the plight of the poor, and create incentives to cheat, all of which adds to the difficulty and cost of a regulatory approach.

    More promising approaches are based on emerging markets for environmental services. Such markets can change incentives and benefit the poor. For example, as a result of global agreements to cut greenhouse gas emissions, markets already exist that require large users of energy (e.g., oil and electricity companies) to pay for each tonne of carbon sequestered in forest or farmland. High transaction costs and difficulties in monitoring and enforcing contracts limit the prospects for most African farmers to benefit from such markets unless they can be effectively organized for this purpose.

    Fair trade arrangements are another way of trying to capture higher prices to pay poor indigenous producers for some of environmental benefits that they generate. There are several successful examples involving non-timber tree products, such as nuts, honey and medicines. As more countries formalize property rights over genetic resources, there may be new opportunities for communities to use farmers' rights to collect royalties on some of the indigenous biodiversity that they conserve.

    Innovations along these lines are constrained by the lack of an expressed market demand for most environmental services. Although environmental services are increasingly appreciated by society, there is little tradition or expectation of having to pay for them. International environmental agreements (e.g., the Kyoto Agreement to reduce carbon emissions) can be effective in bringing the needed pressure to bear, and perhaps similar agreements can be developed for some other environmental services.

    New and emerging technology options such as genetic engineering, information and communications technology, and geographic information systems (GIS) also offer opportunities for better management of natural resources. Remote sensing and GIS tools allow for empirical analyses of land-use change over time and in a spatial context. Genetic engineering to raise productivity allows farmers to produce more output with less exploitation of natural resources. For many regions of Sub-Saharan Africa that depend upon one or two staple crops that are prone to pests and diseases, new crops that offer resistance have enormous implications for food security and rural livelihoods in general. As food security and incomes improve, farmers will be more likely to invest in natural resource management options offered by new technology.

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