It appears presumptuous to try to add to the value of the comprehensive discussions at the Salzburg Global Seminar, and the wide-ranging report of its deliberations and recommendations (‘Towards an African Green Revolution’).
In looking for an African paradigm the Seminar did not resolve the fundamental question of relating demand with supply factors in driving ‘agriculture-led growth’. This issue seems to me to be also unresolved in debates about the Asian Green Revolution. In India, was it in essence a technological revolution, solving supply constraints, as popularly represented, or a transformation of the economic system led by growth in demand? Rapid population growth and massive urbanization (including successful industrialization via an Indian, labour-intensive model) were essential components. Can we imagine an Indian green revolution without these?
The slow growth of productivity in African agriculture is nearly always blamed on supply constraints. There is alleged to be a ‘crisis’ in African agriculture summarised by an ‘inability’ to produce enough food and an increasing dependency on imports. In the most extreme case (Zimbabwe) it is obvious that policy not supply constraints is to blame. Has it occurred to anyone that the close correspondence between food commodity production growth and demographic growth over the last 45 years could be explained by poverty (lack of purchasing power and consequently low prices)? Slack world prices for African exports have meanwhile undermined the export-led model promoted by the World Bank.
Incentives are critical determinants of the uptake of new technology, but often neglected. Certainly, markets can be made more efficient, and more accessible. Credit can overcome capital constraints. But a hard look at the structure of agricultural producer incentives in every African country is surely needed urgently.
Since 1960 most countries have at least doubled their population and at the same time urbanised to an extent that should not be ignored by agricultural planners. The leading example is Nigeria. In the last decade, a critical threshold was passed (50% urbanization). Now, less than half the population have the responsibility for feeding more than half of it. While this transition was taking place, there is evidence of dynamism in the agricultural sector (increased production of yams and cassava per capita, decline in per capita food imports, growth in output of niche commodities while there was a long-term consistency (though fluctuating annually) in output of cereal grains and pulses per capita,), during the period since the adoption of a new policy framework in the 1980s. Other countries may follow a similar course, if they are not already doing so, by virtue of demographic realities.
Agricultural revolution takes place in a multi-sectoral economic context. Most of the Salzburg Seminar discussions appear to have concerned themselves with sectoral policies and actions. An implied assumption appears to be that markets can be taken as ‘given’ and are infinite; therefore, supply constraints must be the problem.
The limitation of African urbanization as a driving force for agricultural revolution – through a radical transformation of rural-urban relations – is the failure of classical industrialization strategies to provide new employment and incomes on a sufficient scale. Poverty levels in many cities are only slightly lower than in some rural areas. Poverty reduction strategies are therefore a necessary ingredient of agriculture-led growth.
This suggests that the necessary conditions for agricultural revolution may lie outside the agricultural sector. This seems to have happened in England in the eighteenth century as well as in India in the twentieth. Precolonial African models are also available. For example, the intensification of small-scale farming in the Kano Close-Settled Zone of Nigeria during the nineteenth century was driven by demand growth for a range of commodities in its metropolitan market.
Although the Salzburg report rightly identifies participatory and accountability dimensions of policy as critical, these priorities seem to me to represent pathways rather than goals. In debates on African green revolution the function of consumer demand is frequently left out of the picture. Is this because everybody knows that India achieved its revolution through protecting its farmers (and its industry) from global competition, whereas (by a silent consensus) Africa must struggle to find its way under Doha conditions? The construction of an African paradigm needs to come to grips with these externalities and realities of macro-economic policy.