Political support more important than seeds, weather and soil in Africa’s agriculture progress, says new report
Ethiopia and Rwanda are emerging as models for pairing political will with government action to transform small, family farms into poverty-fighting powerhouses
Most African countries are struggling to follow the lead of Asian countries in using agriculture to spark widespread economic growth because they have yet to marshal strong political support for agriculture – and then pair it with compelling visions, strategies and related implementation capacity for transforming their poorly performing farms, according to a major new study released on Wednesday by the Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).
“Our experience and lessons have shown that impact can be achieved faster by supporting countries to deliver on their own transformation; driving scale through a well-planned and coordinated approach to resources in the public domain to build systems and institutions,” said AGRA President Dr. Agnes Kalibata, commenting on the 2018 African Agriculture Status Report (AASR).
“Governments are definitely central to driving an inclusive agriculture transformation agenda. This body of work recognizes their role and aims to highlight the value of strengthening country planning, coordination and implementation capacity while supporting the development of an effective private sector and enabling regulatory environment.”
The report, “Catalyzing State Capacity to Drive Agriculture Transformation,” is the most comprehensive assessment to date of the role of state capacity and political will in achieving that “transformation,” a catch-all term for work required to boost production and incomes on the millions of small, family farms that grow most of Africa’s food – but where output often lags far below global averages.
The assessment was released on the opening day of this week’s African Green Revolution Forum (AGRF) in Kigali, a meeting that is attracting influential leaders from across the continent and around the world who are eager to see farming and food production take center stage in African economic development efforts. The event’s theme – Lead, Measure, Grow – is spotlighting the importance of political leadership and accountability in delivering on the economic promise of agriculture.
The 2018 AASR notes that if one looks at countries like China or South Korea or, closer to home, at Ethiopia, Rwanda or Morocco, it’s clear that intensifying commercial production on small, family farms packs a powerful economic punch.
For example, China’s agriculture transformation is credited with kick-starting a rapid decline in rural poverty, from 53 percent in 1981 to 8 percent in 2001. The same is true for Vietnam, where rural poverty declined from 56 percent in 1986 to percent in 2018. In Ethiopia, 25 years of steady growth in the farm sector has cut rural poverty rates in half and in Rwanda, over the same period, poverty has reduced by 25 percent.
The AASR finds that a consistent feature in each of these success stories is rock solid political support – led by heads of state, senior government ministers, private sector leaders and farmer organizations – for the “institutions, investments and policies” that can unleash the economic potential of smallholder agriculture and local agribusinesses.
Equally important: the report finds political capital is typically invested in a detailed plan of action that is carried out by a strong cadre of skilled professionals. And not just from the agriculture sector. The report notes that successful agriculture transformation is a national agenda that involves significant contributions from other sectors, including finance, transportation, environment, energy and water. Together, they implement policies that create fertile ground for cultivating a new crop of local agriculture businesses.
But the AASR assessment reveals that this vital constellation of political energy, targeted policy reforms, government capacity and an enabling environment for agribusiness is precisely what is missing from the agriculture sector of many African countries.
It examined data from other independent research – such as those that compare government taxation of farm inputs to support the sector or that monitor public spending on agriculture including research and extension services – and noted that stronger policies and regulatory reforms are central in attracting private sector investments.
They all pointed to the same conclusion: that the government and state is key to leading and driving agriculture transformation. Otherwise, the report notes, the pace of development will never grow economies the same way it did in Asia.
“Existing data suggest that the political will to support agriculture transformation is likely lower in Africa than in other regions of the developing world,” the report states, adding that it “has not substantially increased during the past decade.”
Below is a list of seven key recommendations to African governments that could help unleash the potential of African farmers and agribusinesses.
The tide may be turning: Signs of commitment to progress
The report finds key exceptions that can help blaze a path for other African countries to follow. In addition to Ethiopia, Rwanda is cited for marshalling political support for agriculture and then integrating detailed action plans within its broader economic development strategies. Progress in the sector is credited with lifting over one million Rwandans out of extreme poverty in a relatively short period.
Economic output in Ghana’s agriculture sector – driven in part by the government’s new “Planting for Food and Jobs” program – grew 8.4 percent in 2017 (after posting only 3 percent growth in 2016). Similarly, AGRA experts point to countries such as Kenya, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Zambia as places where political momentum and government capabilities are growing.
Others also see reason for optimism in the increasing willingness of African governments to openly discuss where they are advancing in agriculture and where they are struggling. For example, 47 countries have signed on to the African Union’s Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Program (CAADP). And they recently submitted detailed reports outlining their progress to date in achieving a range of commitments made through the AU’s Maputo and Malabo accords. The report, dubbed the pdf Biennial Review of the Malabo Declaration (4.18 MB) , re-enforced the link between government action on agriculture and reductions in poverty, with Rwanda posting the highest “agriculture transformation” score.
With farmers poised for progress, report reveals a way forward
Another bright point in the report is the growing number of smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa who have moved beyond subsistence farming to become commercial growers. The report finds that 85 percent of Africa’s food is currently produced by smallholder farming households that generate a big enough surplus to sell 30 percent or more of their harvests for income.
“That means governments that are ready to step up their commitment to agriculture transformation likely have a core group of smallholder farmers who have the means and motivation to adopt new crop varieties and better farming practices,” said Boaz Keizire, AGRA’s Head of Policy and Advocacy. “And when their wealth increases, so does the wealth of their neighbors as these farmers tend to spend most of what they earn in their local communities.”
The report notes that it is “the increased spending of small commercial farmers” in rural communities that accounts for the powerful economic domino effect numerous studies have linked to agriculture growth in low-income countries. The World Bank concludes that growth in the agriculture sector is at least twice as effective at reducing poverty as growth in any other sector.
“We hope people will be coming to this year’s AGRF ready to build the coalitions that can take advantage of the unique power of agriculture as the surest path to growing economies and jobs,” said Dr. Kalibata.
Seven key recommendations for African governments to unleash the potential of agriculture
The AASR offers a detailed exploration of the different levers governments must pull to unleash the potential of their smallholder farmers to deliver both food security and economic growth. They include:
Communicate a clear and convincing vision of agriculture’s potential. The report finds that the work starts with political leaders who can make a compelling case that boosting productivity and incomes on smallholder farms can rapidly deliver food security and equitable economic development, all the while – putting the country on a path to industrialization. Leaders in Ethiopia and Rwanda were credited with building a broad coalition of public and private sector support for farmers, along with donors and international aid institutions. The report also notes the importance of ensuring professionals or “technocrats” across government understand their roles in the transformation process and are ready to be held accountable for their performance.
Approach agriculture as a long-term relationship, not a brief affair. Like a good marriage, the report finds political will to support agriculture involves not just the readiness to embrace its potential, but also the ability to maintain a steadfast commitment for the long-term – and in the face of multiple challenges. For governments, the report observes that these challenges inevitably will include “poor civil service salaries and limited funding for operational expenses” that require fortitude to resolve. Headaches can involve a range of issues, like a backlog of seed certifications, funding from donors that goes unspent, land disputes that remain unsettled and poorly administered subsidy payments. The report notes that the inability to maintain an ardor for agriculture may explain why the success of past efforts in the region, like the “hybrid maize” revolution of the 1980s that was supposed to dramatically boost maize production or the “cassava transformation” promised for Western and Southern Africa, “were often not maintained over time.”
Link policies and investments to clear commercial opportunities for smallholder farmers. The report finds that agriculture investments achieve their best results when they are attached to specific “agriculture value chains” – a reference to all of the links involved in boosting production of an agriculture commodity and moving it from farm to fork. For example, maize is a commodity increasingly in demand in East and Southern Africa in part because government policies and investments have supported multiple areas – including research, extension services, land rights, financing, storage and trade pacts – with a focus on how they can work in concert to help boost production and sales of maize. Elsewhere in Africa, similar government efforts are focused on coordinating a suite of activities around commercial value chains for rice, cassava, coca, potato and livestock products. The report notes that evidence from other countries indicates that the most effective agriculture transformation efforts concentrate on three or four commodities where smallholders can be the lead producers and where there is an opportunity to add value to the produce at it moves along the value chain, like processing maize into flour or even cassava into beer.
Foster an enabling business environment for agriculture. The report finds that most countries in sub-Saharan Africa lagged behind those in East Asia and Latin America in the World Bank’s 2017 “enabling the business of agriculture” or EBA score. That assessment looks at investments, policies and regulatory practices that can affect production and availability of things like improved seeds, fertilizer, farm machinery, and financing and impede or facilitate access to commercial markets. A survey of agriculture businesses in 11 African countries revealed a number of actions governments can take to attract more private sector investments. They include policies that encourage financing for agriculture-focused start-ups; better oversight of seed and fertilizer markets, where quality concerns and counterfeit products remain a problem; land reforms, particularly those that address challenges affecting women farmers; and increased investments in roads, power grids, irrigation and digital infrastructure serving farming communities.
Create farmer-focused institutions and initiatives empowered to work across government. The study laments aid policies of the 1980s and 1990s that promoted austerity in government spending and led to significant reductions in public sector extension services and research programs that continue to be felt today. In looking for approaches to jump start the agriculture transformation process, the report advises governments to look to Ethiopia and its decision in 2010 to set up its Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA). The independent agency has the political clout to move quickly to address anything impeding progress in the agriculture sector. Rwanda is lauded for its comprehensive Crop Intensification Program and for a willingness to experiment with different approaches to supporting farmers and revisit what’s not working. The report recommends that when creating an agriculture transformation coordinating body, make sure it maintains authority by reporting to the head of state.
‘Team agriculture’ needs to expand its roster of players. The report emphasizes that success on the farm requires assistance far beyond the agriculture sector. For example, it requires reliable access to electrical power, roads, water, and ports and strong trade pacts. Almost all of the work to make this happen occurs outside of the agriculture ministry, pointing to the need for efforts that ensure everyone in government is prepared to play for ‘team agriculture’. The report points to examples where countries have created the necessary structures for this type of collaboration but neglected to secure the political support and operational budgets required to make them work. And it finds this aspect of the agriculture transformation process, perhaps more than any other, is where “political support at the Presidential or Prime Minister level is critical.”
Governments need to be accountable. The report takes a close look at the AU Biennial Review process for gauging governments’ progress toward meeting their CAADP commitments, which include increased spending on agriculture, boosting regional trade in agriculture commodities and helping farmers adapt to climate change. According to the review, there are currently 20 countries (out of 47) that are on track to achieve their commitments by 2025. The AASR notes that the Biennial Review could benefit from improving the consistency and quality of agriculture-related data and measures that can boost confidence in a system pegged to self-assessments. But overall, it lauds the reports as a significant advance toward transparency.
“It is a huge plus for African development,” the report concludes, “and a prime example of national and international cooperation.”