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How sub-Saharan Africa can rethink its approach to agriculture

What might a change in approach look like?
South Africa produces about 16% of sub-Saharan Africa’s maize. Image: Shutterstock

In response to the economic devastation caused by the coronavirus pandemic, most sub-Saharan governments are developing economic recovery plans. These will require some different thinking, particularly when it comes to agriculture. Wandile Sihlobo, the chief economist of the Agricultural Business Chamber of South Africa, explains to Michael Aliber, a professor of agricultural economics at the University of Fort Hare, what that new thinking might look like.

You have argued that governments should use the post-Covid environment to think differently about agriculture. What should be done differently?

African governments should have a fresh look at agriculture. This involves embracing technology (information technology, mechanical and biotechnology) and also private sector partnerships. There also needs to be confidence in the citizenry to manage their land parcels. This will involve the granting of title deeds or tradable long-term leases in various African countries. And in the case of better seeds, the evidence from South Africa is there for many countries to observe and learn.

The economic recovery from the pandemic therefore presents an opportunity for governments to explore available technologies that could help in the registration of land rights. These include global positioning systems, mapping and blockchain technologies.

This will help solve disputes and also with the tradability of land rights. This process can be piloted on agricultural land. The proper recording and confirmation of land rights will encourage individual entrepreneurs to invest in their farmland and thereby trigger the commercialisation and growth of the agricultural sector.

There are also examples of technologies that various countries could use to document land. Examples include the use of drones in India, and aerial photography in Rwanda. This would help change the troubling statistic that roughly 90% of rural land in Africa is not formally documented.

How would you envisage overcoming the concern that ambitious rights formalisation and documentation strategies tend to extinguish secondary rights, often held by women?

The overall intention is to ensure formalisation of land rights, with the objective of attracting investments in the agricultural sector and unlocking its potential.

Africa has, indeed, a history of disadvantaging women on land matters. Any strategy for the formalisation of land rights will have to be well thought out and transparent. The aim should be to ensure that there isn’t bias towards men and politically connected individuals as has been observed in land reform cases in South Africa.

Are you perhaps placing too much faith in technology?

To date, South Africa is the only country in sub-Saharan Africa that has embraced biotechnology. This is primarily because it’s the only country in the region that has adopted the use of genetically engineered cotton, maize and soybean seeds. Other countries that have done so include the US, Brazil and Argentina. In these countries, the use of the genetically engineered seeds has seen lower insecticide use, more environmentally friendly tillage practices and improvements in crop yields.

How productive is sub-Saharan African agriculture relative to other regions of the world? What can be done to improve yields?

There is compelling evidence of the increase in yields within the sub-Saharan Africa region. Consider South Africa. It produces about 16% of sub-Saharan Africa maize, according to the International Grains Council. But it uses a relatively small area of land – an average of 2.5 million hectares since 2010. In contrast, countries such as Nigeria planted 6.5 million hectares in the same production season but only harvested 11 million tonnes of maize. Nigeria’s output equates to 15% of the sub-Saharan region’s maize production.

South Africa began planting genetically engineered maize seeds in the 2001/02 season. Before its introduction, average maize yields were around 2.4 tonnes per hectare. That has now increased to an average of 5.9 tonnes per hectare as of the 2019/20 production season.

Meanwhile, the sub-Saharan Africa region’s maize yields remain negligible, averaging below 2.0 tonnes per hectare.

While yields are also influenced by improved germplasm (enabled by non-GM biotechnology) and improved low- and no-till production methods (facilitated through herbicide tolerant GM technology), other benefits include labour savings, reduced insecticide use, and improved weed and pest control. These labour-saving benefits, also for small-scale livelihood farmers, were also observed in a research study in the KwaZulu Natal province of South Africa.

Other countries like Kenya and Nigeria are increasingly field-testing genetically engineered crops. They should accelerate the process, and when it meets their scientific standards, should embark on commercialisation as part of the recovery from the economic slump caused by the pandemic.

Each country will have its domestic regulatory process which safeguards consumers and farmers. But these need not be too prohibitive to the extent that they disadvantage farmers. A case in point is Zimbabwe, where the importation of genetically engineered maize has recently been permitted but planting by domestic farmers is prohibited.

But high yield – that is the amount produced per unit area – typically means high input costs, which is one reason why small-scale farmers’ uptake of these technologies is limited. Also, won’t the emergence of larger and more commercially oriented and technologically capable African farmers result in agriculture absorbing less and less labour?

Africa’s smallholder farmers will generally struggle to access some technologies because of the associated costs. But if the goal is to ensure that the African continent can compete globally with the likes of the US, Brazil and Argentina, among others, then the focus should be on commercialisation of farmers and encourage the economies of scale on the continent. There have to be trade-offs. These include job losses in certain subsectors such as grains as farmers would be adopting more technologies.

But there are potential gains in other subsectors such as horticulture. If supported and developed to scale, these could create large numbers of jobs. Again, a case in point is South Africa, where there were job losses in field crops but horticulture created many jobs.

The key is to ensure job mobility so that people can progressively move to higher paying jobs in agro-processing and other subsectors.

In sum, this is not to mean we should move away from smallholder farming per se. We need a mixed farming system. Where conditions allow, commercialisation at large scale should be encouraged. This is precisely the case in Brazil, where there is a mixed farming system.

Wandile Sihlobo is the author of Finding Common Ground: Land, Equity, and AgricultureThe Conversation.

Michael Aliber, professor of Agricultural Economics, University of Fort Hare and Wandile Sihlobo, visiting research fellow, Wits School of Governance, University of the Witwatersrand.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.


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How can Sub Sahara Africa rethink agriculture? They are so primitive in their thinking, they believe that if they don’t vote for the ANC or other party in power, then the ancestors will tell the leaders of their disloyalty. You are expecting too much.

Until the subsistence “farming” mentality and hand to mouth living is voided, forget it – 5 maize plants a ten goats and a few cows does not a farming economy make.

No worries though, most anc cadres think food comes from “Checkers, Pic ‘n Pay, and Spar”, with the elite amongst them, Woolworths!!

This article essentially describes how the title deed, a piece of paper, forms the basis of any modern economy and enables, empowers, and motivates entrepreneurs to apply their faculties to benefit the whole of society. The individuals and companies that own title deeds support everybody without one. The title deed is the difference between beneficial development and economic regress, between sustainability and decay, between food security and famine.

Every nation that disregards title deeds experience economic contraction, unemployment, rising debt, failed service delivery, a corrupt government, a criminal justice system in disarray, and eventually implode under hyperinflation. The sad case of Venezuela proves the point. Venezuela owns an abundance of oil, but all that oil stays underground while people queue for petrol. BEE and the Mining Charter is the South African version of the Venezuelan disaster.

All those naive and ignorant advocates of small-scale farming and land reform should ask themselves why thousands of young, experienced and capable South African farmers are flocking to farms in the USA where they are employed as migrant workers at the minimum wage. If anybody in this country is experienced enough to make a success of small-scale farming, it will be these young farmers. Yet they prefer to travel to America to sell their labour at the minimum wage?

This lays bare the reality that the experienced and skilled individuals do not see any opportunities in small-scale farming, and that those who do venture into small-scale farming are unemployable at the minimum wage in a country that requires skills. This leaves only the unskilled and ignorant to attempt small-scale farming. There are obviously many of them.

That leaves us with the undeniable reality that those individuals who attempt or advocate small-scale farming do not have a clue what they are doing, are out of touch with reality, and are destined for failure. The free market does not reward ignorance and nativity. Socialism does reward ignorance and nativity for a short period, but the Debt/GDP ratio clearly shows that this myopia is unsustainable over the long term.

I 100% agree wrt to title deeds. I completely disagree with large scale commercialisation. Go and look at the Ecosia rehabilitation programs. In particular work in Senegal on small scale farming where multi cropping results in huge benefits to communities as well as improved diets.
Monoculture is old school whereas regenerative agriculture with multi crops is where Africa could leap frog.

I don’t have all the fancy new-wave adjectives but believe :

1. We should invest massively in value-added agri-processing. All of our products should be converted here to shelf-ready.

2. For domestic consumers we need to take a very close look at the value chain. Compare the price per carton / punnet / bag the actual farmers get to what consumers pay.

3. We must protect our domestic varieties as jealously as France protects Champagne and Portugal Port. You grow Rooibos or Buchu in Texas? Tough luck you cannot call it Rooibos / Buchu.

I heard government is going to spend several billions on support for subsistence farmers. Talk about supporting the losers. I am sure no young child aspires to becoming a subsistence farmer and it is a waste of valuable farmland that can be used far more productively. What a waste!

Congrats to the authors for a great article on land reform.

The starting point is the title deeds, as said above.

The vast lands in the traditional areas that are under utilized or even lying fallow, can then be made productive.

Aside, our economists focus on second world jobs when they refer to the 40% unemployment rate. Much more focus should be on informal jobs and jobs in the traditional areas. The formal economy cannot absorb all the excess labour, produced by the explosion in population growth.

End of comments.





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