Africa's need for an agricultural revolution is clear and a new sense of urgency has reared its head internationally.
Africa is the poorest continent on earth, despite housing the lion’s share of the planet’s natural resources as well as vast tracts of underutilised fertile and potentially productive agricultural land.
It has one of the lowest population densities in the world, 29 people a square kilometre, and is home to 14% of the globe’s population while making up 22% of the world’s land mass. As in Asia in the 1960s, Africa has been pummelled by food crises in recent decades, owing to agricultural production taking a beating from political unrest, conflict over land ownership, climate change and its consequences, limited infrastructural development, increasing poverty and general lack of economic growth.
In Asia, according to Lester Brown’s paper on the agricultural revolution in that part of the world published in 1968, the response to concurrent food crises in 1965 and 1966 was a revolution “evident in the Asian countryside stretching from Turkey to the Philippines, and including the pivotal countries of India and Pakistan”. He adds that “there is little prospect that it will abort, so powerful and pervasive are the forces behind it”.
Asia, then as now, was very densely populated and traditional agriculture could no longer support the area’s growing population as cropland was becoming severely limited. Food production was not keeping up with rapid growth in population in the 1950s and 1960s and two successive failed monsoon seasons in India brought the gravity of the situation to the fore.
The ensuing revolution was based on the single principle of upping agricultural yields, especially rice, by means of technology, and was successful, according to Hans Herren, co-chair of the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development. Farming production was increased and famine was avoided.
Factors like subsidised inputs, access to better credit, government support and the improvement of infrastructure were also important and are similar to some of the problems African agriculture faces. Asia’s green or farming revolution did lead to the development of highyielding grain varieties, but some of its other long-term results were depleted soil fertility and water supplies, damaged ecosystems, farmer debt, expensive inputs, decreased crop diversity and higher urbanisation.
The increase in productivity resulting from the Asian farming revolution was not sustainable, however according to an article by Hira Jhamtani in 2009 titled “The Green Revolution in Asia: Lessons for Africa”, and reports as early as 1976 indicated that the growth in crop yields had diminished to levels below 1% for some Asian countries. Ultimately this led to higher prices for inputs and had a seriously detrimental effect on especially
‘Africa needs to take note of this. The issue is how to sustain productivity as well as farmers’ income, in a matter that is cost-efficient,” says Jhamtani. The use of agricultural chemicals during the Asian farming revolution, which had until then not been used before, eventually pushed input prices up and, over the years, more of these chemicals had to be used to keep farming yields high.
These costs erased any profit for farmers, leading to increased poverty, which has undoubtedly contributed to the 642-million people suffering from hunger in Asia and the Pacific today. In Africa, according to Worldhunger.org, 265-million people suffer from hunger currently.
Many have no means to support themselves and depend on aid from first world countries. For those supporting themselves and their families through subsistence farming, factors such as climate change—which leads to increased drought in some parts and floods or extreme weather in others—may also soon scupper their livelihoods.
According to Dr Ivette Perfecto, professor of ecology and natural resources at the University of Michigan, the increase in farming yields does not have to come at the cost Asia paid. “The original green revolution was good for a small number of farmers and especially good for pesticide manufacturers and fertiliser companies, as well as contractors to build dams and irrigation canals, farm machinery and the like.”
Both Perfecto and Herren support ecological or conservation agriculture as a potentially more successful and sustainable approach for the farming revolution so desperately needed in Africa and both draw attention to the potential locked in investing and supporting smallscale farmers.
‘The evidence in support of lowinput ecological agriculture is undeniable. From the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technologies for Development to a recent United Nations conference on trade and development report that states: ‘Organic agriculture can be more conducive to food security in Africa than most conventional production systems, and is more likely to be sustainable in the long run,” says Herren. Perfecto says, in an interview with Jeremy Hance for Mongabay.com, an environmental science and conservation news site, that FAO data indicates that smaller farms are more productive.
“This is what the data say. It is well known among agricultural economists. So much so that they even have a name for it: the inverse productivity relationship.” The cultivation of a culture of
stewardship of land and supporting smallholder farmers to gain ownership of their resources is also put forward along with the argument for breaking up mega-farms, redistributing them to small-scale farmers and providing training in agroecology.
This kind of conservation agriculture is centred on small farming operations that use no pesticides and minimal artificial fertilisers, as well as dramatic increases in research and investment. In Africa an agricultural revolution would have to look beyond increased food production, says Herren.
“We need to invest in technologies that blend farmer knowledge and innovation from formal science. We need to support an agriculture that fosters rural economies, that restores, not erodes, biodiversity and soil fertility, and that builds resilient food systems that can withstand shocks like climate change.”
Growth potential for African farming is, according to Louis von Zeuner from Absa, enormous. At the annual Nampo Harvest Day near Bothaville in the Free State earlier this year he predicted that
African agriculture holds the potential to grow by 170% over the next three to four years, but only if the continent’s infrastructure keeps developing at its current rate.
Africa missed out on the technological developments that flowed from the Asian green revolution because of a lack of human and institutional capacity, as well as political upheaval. The Asian revolution also focused on grain crops such as rice and wheat, whereas Africa’s would have to look to staples such millet, cassava and sorghum.
Development in the fields of drought-resistant crops, increased research and the development of human capacity and the transfer of relevant technology and skills are getting some attention in Africa at present, but the continent still has to overcome serious obstacles such as the reliance on outside funding, lack of education, dependence on foreign aid, lack of infrastructure and policy constraints.
Africa’s need for an agricultural revolution is clear and a new sense of urgency has reared its head internationally, but the pitfalls and results of the Asian farming revolution serve as a clear warning. “The African green revolution can be a reality, but Africa will not be able to develop a science-based agriculture and economy without considerable external assistance,” says Gebisa Ejeta from Purdue University’s department of agronomy.