Analysis & Opinions - Public Service Review

Growing the Economy

| April 11, 2011

Agriculture in Africa needs to be viewed as a knowledge-based entrepreneurial activity in order to spread prosperity, believes Harvard Kennedy School's Professor Calestous Juma

Africa can feed itself in a generation. It can achieve this by harnessing abundant technologies that are available worldwide, expanding internal regional markets and building rural infrastructure. Even more importantly, African leaders — especially presidents and prime ministers — will need to take charge of the agenda for agriculture. This is mainly because for Africa, agriculture and the economy are one and the same.

African countries are learning that they can greatly benefit from the global knowledge economy if they better integrate research conducted in academia, government, civil society, and private industry with the guidance of regional integration policy. Yet, the untapped potential of African agriculture becomes striking when comparing it to Asia, which has seen huge increases in agricultural yields in the last 40 years.

Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA)'s food production by contrast is actually 10% lower today than it was 1960, while the aggregate world food production has increased by 145% over the same period of time. As a result, the continent has become most dependent on food imports and is most vulnerable to fluctuations in world food prices.

The reason for this poor track record is decades of imposed underinvestment in agriculture. The imposition was guided by ideologies that opposed funding to infrastructure and technical training — two critical foundations for agricultural innovation. For example, fertiliser use is strikingly low with only 13kg per
hectare in sub-Saharan Africa compared with 71kg in northern Africa.
Only 24% of cereal production uses improved seeds compared with 85% in eastern Asia. The lack of nutrient input has led to a dramatic depletion of soil quality; 75% of farmland in sub-Saharan Africa has been degraded by overuse. Only about 4% of Africa's crops are irrigated, compared to about 40% in South Asia.

Sustaining African economic prosperity will require significant efforts to modernise the continent's economy through the application of science and technology in agriculture. In other words, agriculture needs to be viewed as a knowledge-based entrepreneurial activity.

The argument is based on the premise that smart investments in agriculture will have multiplier effects in many sectors of the economy and help spread prosperity. More specifically, the study focuses on the importance of boosting support for agricultural research as part of a larger agenda to promote innovation, invest in enabling infrastructure, build human capacity, stimulate entrepreneurship, and improve the governance of innovation.

Regional economic integration
The emergence of Africa's Regional Economic Communities (RECs) provides a unique opportunity to promote innovation in African agriculture in a more systematic and coordinated way. The launching of the East African Common Market in July 2010 represented a significant milestone in the steady process of deepening Africa's economic integration. It is a trend that complements similar efforts in other parts of Africa, and also underscores the determination among African leaders to expand prospects for prosperity by creating space for economic growth and technological innovation.

One of the challenges facing Africa's RECs has been their perceived overlap and duplication of effort. Part of this concern has been overstated. The RECs evolved based on local priorities. For example, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is by far the most advanced in peace-keeping while the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) has made significant strides in trade matters.

In the meantime, the East African Community (EAC) — one of the oldest regional integration bodies in the world — has made significant advances on the social, cultural, and political fronts. It has judicial and legislative organs and aspires to create a federated state with a single president in the future. EAC leaders already have focus on promoting regional agricultural trade with initial emphasis on infrastructure investment and market integration.

Laying technological foundations
Agricultural productivity, entrepreneurship, and added value foster productivity in rural-based economies. In many poor countries, however, farmers, small and medium-sized enterprises, and research centres do not interact in ways that accelerate the move beyond low value-added subsistence sustainable agriculture.

Strengthening rural innovation systems, developing effective clusters that can add value to unprocessed raw materials, and promoting value chains across such diverse sectors as horticulture, food processing and packaging, food storage and transportation, food safety, distribution systems, and exports are all central to moving beyond subsistence sustainable agriculture, generating growth, and moving toward prosperity.

Developed and emerging economies can do much more to identify and support policies and programmes to assist Africa in taking a comprehensive approach to agricultural development to break out of poverty. This requires rethinking the agenda to create innovation systems to foster interactions among government, industry, academia, and civil society — all of which are critical actors.

The current concerns over rising food prices have compounded worries about the state and future of African agriculture. This sector has historically lagged behind
the rest of the world. Part of the problem lies in the low level of investment in Africa's agricultural research and development.

Enhancing African agricultural development will require specific efforts aimed at aligning science and technology strategies with agricultural development efforts. African leaders have in recent years been placing increasing emphasis on the role of science and innovation in economic transformation. The Eighth African Union Summit met in January 2007 and adopted decisions aimed at strengthening the role of science and innovation in economic transformation. They are part of a growing body of guidance on the role of science and innovation in Africa's economic transformation. The decisions underscore the growing importance that African leaders place on science and innovation for development.

However, the translation of these decisions into concrete action remains a key challenge for Africa. The main problem facing African countries is aligning national and regional levels of governance with long-term technological considerations. This challenge is emerging at a time when African countries are seeking to deepen economic integration and expand domestic markets. These efforts are likely to affect the way agricultural policy is pursued in Africa.

Africa is largely an agricultural economy, with the majority of the population deriving their income from farming. Food security, agricultural development, and economic growth are intertwined. Improving Africa's agricultural performance will require deliberate policy efforts to bring higher technical education, especially in universities, to the service of agriculture and the economy. It is important to focus on how to improve the productivity of agricultural workers, most of whom are women, through technological innovation.

New frontiers for institutional innovation
The next frontiers in the modernisation of African agriculture will be two-fold. The first step will be the urgent need to reposition African universities and research institutions so that they can play a key role in serving farmers.

Currently, government agricultural research institutes do not have strong links with the student population. As a result, their research findings are not readily diffused into the economy. Universities tend to focus on teaching and have little support for research. This is an untenable situation that can only lead to agricultural stagnation.

More dynamic institutions of higher learning that combine agricultural research and teaching are urgently needed. These institutions will need to be directly linked to farmers with specific mandates to focus on raising the productivity of women who account for 70% of Africa's agricultural produce.

The second step will be to use the new generation of universities to promote the identification, improvement and adoption of all types of agricultural technologies ranging from farm machinery to new and improved seed varieties. These efforts will require high level coordination involving a large number of institutions. The premise for such coordination is that agriculture is not a sector; it is a system and should be managed as such.

This article is based on the author's book 'The New Harvest: Agricultural Innovation in Africa.'

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Juma, Calestous.“Growing the Economy.” Public Service Review, April 11, 2011.