Fixing Famine in Africa

Published on 18th August 2009

The strain of rising food prices and severe shortages in mid-2008 caused riots and protests in a number of countries across the globe and contributed to civil unrest in several others. The poorest region of the world sub-Saharan Africa was hit particularly hard by the strain of rising food prices. At the time World Bank President Robert Zoellick warned, “[The] doubling of food prices…could potentially push 100 million people in low-income countries deeper into poverty”. Though world food prices have decreased since last year, many millions of people around the world and particularly in Africa remain vulnerable to disruptions in supply.

Agriculture forms the backbone of many African economies. In sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) 70–80 per cent of employment and 30 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) are derived from agriculture. However, African countries generally suffer from very low agricultural yields compared to the rest of the world, which contributes to Africa’s poverty and lack of economic development. When food prices rise the rural poor’s risk of malnourishment increases. Even without major price hikes, many of these people live in hunger. A revolution in SSA’s agricultural productivity can help to overcome this poverty. Yet a number of systemic problems, including lack of property rights, government involvement in agricultural markets, and lack of education, are preventing drastic, long-term improvements.

In the short run, simple technology can make a difference in the lives of Africa’s millions of rural farmers by increasing the productivity of their land and thereby increasing incomes. In Africa, only 27 per cent of land is planted with modern seeds. Not using the best inputs and equipment available, such as hybrid seeds and basic irrigation systems, prevents African farmers from maximising the productivity of their land.

Today’s agricultural technology can make millions of rural poor more food secure and economically better off. According to the World Bank, a 10 per cent increase in crop yields leads to a 9 per cent decrease in the percentage of people living on less than $1 a day. It is essential, however, that increased agricultural productivity be derived from the better use of existing agricultural land and not from an expansion of agricultural land as in the past. Over the last 40 years, increasing amounts of land have been put to use for farming to the detriment of forests, soil, and water. Last year we visited Kenya and Malawi to document the poverty alleviating aspects of technologies that have been adopted and are proven to work on the ground. Our study Fixing Famine: How Technology and Incentives Can Help Feed Africa identifies various types of technology that small-scale farmers have adopted and which have shown remarkable success in increasing their yields. These technologies include improved seeds, greenhouses, irrigation, and plug seedlings. Over time, the alleviation of food shortages may allow people to focus on the larger systemic problems that must be addressed.

Although agricultural technologies have the potential to be very successful in raising farmer’s productivity, there are several barriers that prevent their greater use such as governmental restrictions, lack of credit, poor infrastructure, high transaction costs, and educational and cultural barriers. Market incentives drive technological change around the world, and agriculture in Africa is no different. Companies that produce and sell seeds contribute by providing technical assistance with crop-growing problems, which adds value to their products. Banks that provide credit to farmers help them be more productive; when the farmers advance financially, they will use more financial services. Though all the problems surrounding African agriculture cannot be solved in the short term, technology can help make immediate improvements in agricultural productivity and standards of living.

Authors: Jasson Urbach (economist at the Free Market Foundation) and Daniel Sacks (research associate at the Mercatus Center) are the authors of Fixing Famine: How Technology and Incentives Can Help Feed Africa published in the US by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and in SA by the Free Market Foundation.

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