An African Green Revolution? Some Personal Reflections

It is not clear to me, however, that the many different players and promoters in this are agreed on what, in the words of Kofi Annan, a ‘uniquely African green revolution’ involves and what it should achieve.

From my observation it seems that there is general agreement on the importance and need for:

  • Partnerships involving public sector, private sector, civil society, farmer organisations, and public and private donors, with good practice by all partners (transparency without corruption or inefficiency, etc)Investment in regional and domestic infrastructure
  • Factoring in climate change to decisions while recognising the difficulties in this
  • Technical and institutional innovation
  • Improving soil fertility, crop genetic potential, and crop protection through increased and better use of inorganic fertiliser and improved seeds, and increasing irrigation
  • Supply chain development, standards and regulations in supply chains, more value addition in African agriculture, and greater recognition of the potential for domestic and regional markets
  • Small and medium entrepreneurs to have better and lower cost access to finance, particularly for medium and longer term investments
  • Recognition and attention to variability in agricultural constraints and opportunities within and between countriesInvestment in education
  • Greater recognition of the critical role of women in farmingUrgent action and implementation by all players rather than continued discussion of vision, plans and frameworks.

This not an exhaustive list, and these are generally unexceptional sentiments. There are, however, a number of fundamental issues which do not appear to be widely recognised or indeed on which there are some disagreements. We have to ask how far lack of attention to or agreement on these issues may undermine implementation and action to promote an African Green Revolution.

There appear to be a wide variety of sometimes complementary and sometimes conflicting understandings of the ‘uniquely African green revolution’. Some of these explicitly or implicitly recognise fundamental environmental and social concerns raised by critics of the Asian green revolution and promote completely different ways of increasing agricultural productivity in Africa . Others would explicitly or implicitly reject many of these concerns but focus on business development around cash crops. A third group would support the focus of the Asian green revolution in increasing food crop production through technical change significantly dependent upon use of fertilisers and high yielding crop varieties.

Different conceptualisations of the ‘uniquely African green revolution’ appear to have a variety of objectives, but they have a common focus on promoting production and the interests of farmers. There appears, however, to be limited explicit recognition that around 50% of African farmers are net purchasers of food, or that while increases in agricultural productivity are a key first step in pro-poor economic growth its key contribution is to promote and allow increased reliance on non-farm (not agricultural) incomes for poverty reduction and higher standards of living: in most parts of the world this has involved exits out of agriculture.

The importance of differences in opportunities and constraints for private sector involvement in staple food and cash crops is closely related to this. Examples of successful unsubsidised private sector initiatives in agricultural finance and other aspects of staple food supply chain development are very rare. However increased productivity of staple foods is of overwhelming importance in pro-poor growth.

First, there are currently huge land and labour inputs into low productivity smallholder staple food production in Africa . Second, low and stable prices of staple foods are critical for stimulating both domestic demand for non-staple agricultural and non-farm production and for releasing labour, land and financial resources from low productivity staple food production. This is because high and unstable prices make smallholders unwilling to leave inefficient subsistence production and trust the market for supplying all of their food needs.

However substantial interventions from government are needed to stabilise prices and to subsidise production or consumer prices, and such interventions were an important component of the green revolution in Asia . Thus although the generalisations listed earlier apply to both food and cash crops, a much more active government role is needed in food crops than in cash crops (where government roles may best be restricted to investments in infrastructure and an enabling environment). Government attempts to play an active role in food crop markets are very challenging and have often failed. However the different roles and opportunities for private and public organisations in food and cash crops need to be explicitly recognised and acted on.

On the one hand there is widespread concern that the African green revolution should recognise the uniqueness of African conditions, but there also appears to be considerable and appropriate interest in applying lessons from other parts of the world to Africa . In the latter case there is, however, a danger of limited recognition of the particular needs for and challenges to growth in poor rural areas – particular needs and challenges which require particular solutions. Picking lessons from economies which have higher levels of economic and market activity is often very unhelpful in these circumstances. An appropriate historical understanding of what worked in the past in other parts of the world before their green revolutions may often be more helpful than taking lessons from what works now, when they have already achieved their green revolutions.

Related to the point above are calls for mechanisation and the use of herbicides to increase farm incomes. These will often offer very substantial benefits to farmers (reduced drudgery, savings in family labour time, and savings in expenditure on hired labour and in time recruiting and supervising hired labour). However if there are substantial numbers of poor people relying on hired labour for their livelihoods then widespread adoption of mechanisation or of herbicides can reduce both wages and opportunities for hiring out labour, and increase poverty. These are difficult and complex issues which need to be recognised.

Broad agreement on the need for an African Green Revolution is very important and very welcome. As part of this a broad and loose definition of what is meant by a ‘uniquely African green revolution’ encourages broad based support and diversity. It is also important, however, to recognise the different visions that are encompassed in this. It is by pursuing the different potentials and addressing the different difficulties associated with these different visions that there is the greatest hope that the benefits of these visions, and of their diversity, can best be realised.

Andrew Dorward, October 2007


Aliance for a Green Revolution in Africa

African Green Revolution website