Awakening Africa’s Sleeping Giant: Agricultural Development in the Guinea Savannah

By Ian Scoones, FAC Co-coordinator

A fascinating FAC workshop has just finished hosted by FAC partner, SOAS, focusing on the World Bank’s Awakening Africa’s Sleeping Giant report. This argues that a huge area, defined as the ‘Guinea savannah’, stretching across West Africa and with a second belt in southern Africa offers huge potential for a new era of commercial agriculture in Africa, sufficient to supply growing domestic, regional and global markets. The report offers two models for agricultural development of this area – the Brazilian cerrado, focusing on large-scale commercial operations, and northeast Thailand, where a smallholder led revolution took place.

The workshop debated the pitfalls and potentials of the ‘Sleeping Giant’ thesis from multiple viewpoints. The lead author of the report, Hans Binswanger, argued that the northeast Thailand pathway was both efficient and desirable, building on the comparative advantages of small-scale agriculture in the African setting. Commenting on arguments that have pushed a vision of large-scale mechanised agriculture, Binswanger emphasised that he was not Paul Collier! Instead, with the right investments in infrastructure, R and D support and market coordination, there were real opportunities in some basic commodities where African smallholder production had substantial comparative advantage, including with cereals, cotton, sugar and oilseeds. Binswanger argued that he was a ‘cautious optimist’ about Africa’s agricultural future, and particularly the potentials of the Guinea savannah. 

The report made its case largely from the standpoint of agricultural economics. Missing from the analysis, as many commentaries at the workshop highlighted, was a more rounded assessment of ecological dynamics, health and disease implications, as well as the broader political economy context. As Maja Slingerland and Michael Mortimore pointed out in their presentations, the agricultural ecology of the Guinea savannahs presents some basic challenges. Soil fertility is often low, even if rainfall relatively good, and the patterns of soil and water availability are highly heterogeneous. Local soil management and agricultural systems often rely heavily on trees for fertility inputs, as well as livestock for manure. And only certain patches of the agricultural landscape are suitable for intensive agricultural production, with highly valued inland valleys and wetlands often important key resources in wider agro-pastoral systems. Developing new commercial options is not simply a matter of on-farm returns and economics based on simple models, it was argued. Instead, a more in-depth assessment of how farm economies and local agroecologies interact was urged.

This was especially highlighted in a fascinating discussion of disease ecologies – both animal and human – offered by Jonathan Rushton and Rory Post. Why certain areas have been underexploited is often fundamentally to do with disease challenges – to livestock through trypanosomiasis, for example, or humans through onchocerciasis. The unforeseen consequences of large numbers of people moving into sparsely populated areas, clearing land and living in close proximity to wildlife, were discussed by Kate Jones, who highlighted the possibility of pandemic diseases emerging, as well as the reduction of valuable biodiversity. Similarly, the challenges of water management, in the context of climate change and rapid intensification of agriculture were emphasised by Bruce Lankford. Thus numerous complex trade-offs exist over multiple spatial and time scales, which are not easily reducible to simple economic metrics. Yet our ability to weigh these up, predict future patterns and assess options with rigorous data remains very poor, especially in the African setting.

Ultimately, however, choices often do not result from such rational analysis and technocratic decision-making. As pointed out by Ruth Hall and Kojo Amanor among others, the report remained unfortunately silent on lessons from history and questions of political economy. While the consensus at the workshop revolved around the Thai model as the best way forward, as many pointed out the more likely outcome, given current political-economic interests, is the Brazilian option, where large-scale land expropriations, supported by governments and elite interests, occur.  What tips the balance in favour of such an outcome and away from more pro-poor, equitable options rooted in smallholder production?

First, is the widely articulated discourse, accepted by many governments in Africa and supported by influential academic and policy commentators, is that ‘big is best’, especially in a globalised world. Despite the fact that there is much evidence that contradicts this, this position holds much sway in influential circles. Second, there is an assumption that the land is empty, lying idle and simply ready for use. Yet of course all land is claimed, and many recent land investment deals have foundered when local claims and resistances have emerged, making local institutional issues and land tenure absolutely critical. Third, are the strong interests vested in vertical supply chains, whether from Asia, Europe or North America, who aim to secure production to guarantee supply to distant markets. Fourth, are local political interests who see the potential for rent seeking from land deals, as well as the often unrealised promises of investment in infrastructure and services from investors. As Hans Binswanger put it, the nightmare scenario is that the savannahs become, for the first time, truly unused and fenced in, as large commercial interests capture land for investments that have no prospect of success, without massive subsidy.

So should we be cautiously optimistic about the potentials of the Guinea savannahs, given all these caveats, qualifications and critiques? Probably, yes. As Colin Poulton observed, an unfolding dynamic exists where demand-driven intensification and commercialisation of agriculture is occurring in certain places and under certain conditions. If we avoid the temptations of repeating the grand, but ultimately failed, plans of the past where land used for expensive and inappropriate schemes, then the sort of indigenous agricultural revolution noted by Kojo Amanor, driven by local ingenuity, organisation and enterprise, may indeed help awaken Africa’s sleeping giant.