Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) is home to more than 950 million people; the region’s population size is projected to reach 2.1 billion by 2050, thus about 22 percent of the world’s entire population. For such a population, agriculture is the major source of livelihood for most of the people in the region; agriculture employs more than 60 percent of the total population in SSA.
However, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) asserts that in 2018, more than 90 percent of the entire 260 million hungry people on the African continent were recorded in SSA with 22.8 percent of the region’s population being undernourished. Although agriculture accounts for about 23 percent of the region’s total Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the full potential of the agriculture sector in SSA is yet to be exploited.
Currently, the region has more than 202 million hectares of uncultivated land; SSA’s arable land is larger than the cultivated area in the United States and close to half of the world’s entire cultivated land. Also, the International Labour Organization (ILO) has revealed that SSA hosts the world’s youngest population; young people with ages between 15 years and 35 years, account for 65 percent of the total labor force. With a workforce that grows at 3 percent per year, ILO estimates that 275 million young people will join the region’s labor force by 2035.
Despite the magnitude of all these resources, the region has the largest proportion of the world’s poorest population. The World Bank reported that poverty rate in SSA was 41 percent in 2015; in the same year, the average poverty rate for the other regions was 13 percent. Out of the world’s 28 poorest countries, 27 of these countries are located in SSA; the region’s extreme poor population exceeds the total extreme poor population for the rest of the world.
It is quite absurd that with all these resources, SSA is poverty-stricken; a condition that could be alleviated with the development of agriculture. The agriculture sector serves as an indispensable component in the economic landscape of the area. With a link between economic growth and agriculture productivity, a significant growth in the agriculture sector is more effective in eradicating poverty than equivalent growth in other sectors of the region’s economy.
To tap into the full potential of the agriculture sector across countries in the region, will require the expansion of farmlands, an increase in yield, a reduction in post-harvest losses and the use of technological innovations. For many decades the agriculture sector in SSA has been characterized by the use of crude tools in farming activities, low application of farm inputs, subsistence farming and perennial post-harvest losses. The reliance on technological innovation could boost agriculture productivity in the SSA.
The expansion of farmlands will require the development of the region’s uncultivated lands; between one-half and two-thirds of these uncultivated lands are located under forest cover, hinterlands and conflict zones. Developing these uncultivated lands for mechanized agriculture which is heavily influenced by technological innovation will be essential in eradicating poverty in SSA.
The expansion of farmlands will provide additional jobs for the growing population, particularly for the youth in the region. For several decades the youth in SSA have not been fully involved in agriculture. Factors such as; lack of collateral to access loans for farming as most of the youth do not own lands and the perception that agriculture involves excessive manual labor on farmlands has discouraged most of the youth from veering into agriculture.
However, by intertwining mechanized agriculture with technological innovation will create new job opportunities for the youth in the agriculture sector, especially as the region’s mobile ecosystem is growing rapidly. This will not be a walk in the park, as massive investment is required to develop the infrastructure in these uncultivated lands. Access to electricity, road networks, storage facilities, telecommunication networks and irrigation facilities should be improved to support high value agriculture in the region.
Agriculture in SSA is largely rainfed, with only about 13 million hectares, representing 6 percent of farmlands having access to irrigation. The impact of climate change on rainfed crop production and livestock farming aggravates the region’s water crisis. With an overburdened water system, largely driven by excessive demand for water from urban areas, mismanagement of resources and pollution; the effects of climate change on water resources reduces agriculture productivity.
Through technological innovation, the development of adequate irrigation systems on farmlands could enhance access to water for agriculture productivity.
A study shows that a significant increase in access to irrigation on farmlands stimulates agriculture productivity by 50 percent and low access to irrigation also reduces agriculture productivity. To sustain agriculture productivity via irrigation, it will require an investment of at least $65 billion to extend irrigation from 6 percent to 15 percent of the cultivated land in SSA.
Apart from the region’s low access to irrigation on farmlands, the use of other agriculture inputs such as high-yield crops, climate-resilient crops and fertilizer has been relatively low. According to the FAO, although the region has a prevalent soil nutrient deficit, the use of fertilizer in SSA, accounts for only 3 percent of global fertilizer consumption. Low application of fertilizer on farmlands has led to a perennial decline in crop yield in the region as high cost of fertilizers has discouraged farmers from using the input material on their farms.
In addition, most farmers do not know the relevance of fertilizer application in crop production, so they are reluctant in using the product on their farms. This has been a drawback for fertilizer manufacturers as they have been deprived of economies of scale; the low patronage of fertilizer in the region makes the production and distribution of fertilizer in hinterlands extremely expensive.
In the rural areas, agriculture is the predominant source of livelihood and a large proportion of the extreme poor population are residents in these areas. Policymakers could encourage the usage of climate-resilient crops, high-yield crops and fertilizers in crop production by subsidizing the price of these agricultural inputs in low income areas; development partners and relevant stakeholders could augment this effort by frequently conducting workshops and seminars to educate farmers on the role of fertilizer application, climate-resilient crops and high-yield crops in enhancing crop yield. These collaborated programs will equip farmers with the required skill set for fertilizer application and also provide farmers with adequate information on agricultural inputs.
To conserve yield from farmlands, appropriate large storage facilities are needed to protect agricultural commodities. Currently, farmers in SSA store grains in traditional storage contraptions that are made of grass, mud and wood. Highlights of a joint report from the Food and Agriculture Organization, World Bank and the Natural Resource Institute suggests that post harvest losses for all grains in SSA is $4 billion per year; this amount exceeds the value of food aid the region has received in the last decade.
This clearly shows that the provision of adequate storage facilities will foster food security in the area. In remote areas where access to electricity grid is usually limited, solar-powered storage facilities could be used to preserve goods from farms as sunshine is mostly available all year round in SSA. Agriculture development in SSA could stimulate economic growth and eradicate poverty in the region.
Originally published at CGTN