Most of the countries in Sub-Saharan Africa1 are dealing with growth of agricultural production that is barely sufficient to keep up with population growth. This undermines food security. Moreover, almost half of the agricultural production growth is still achieved through expansion of agricultural land. This happens at the expense of forests, savannahs and natural areas, with negative consequences for biodiversity and climate. Partly due to the slow growth of production, socio-economic developments lag behind. As a result, the birth rate in SSA remains higher than desired from a development perspective.

There is a strategy to significantly mitigate these problems: sustainable agricultural intensification, i.e. increasing production per hectare without additional environmental damage. The potential for ‘sustainable intensification’ in SSA is huge, as there are still large yield gaps everywhere even though some countries are already well on their way. Sustainable intensification has other benefits as well; countries become less dependent on food imports, geopolitics and multinationals, capital and labour become available for the development of other sectors, food prices and thus wages do not rise too high, all of which favour industrial development and much-needed employment. A broader development and a lower birth rate could also eventually reduce emigration pressures, but this is not a foregone conclusion2. Finally, sustainable intensification can relieve pressure on forests, savannahs and natural areas.

Governments in SSA can do a lot to encourage intensification, but there is no one-size-fits-all solution. There are major differences between countries in terms of climate, soil fertility, agricultural development and availability of energy and mineral resources. Social and cultural differences, and differences in economic and political development are to be taken into account as well.

Nevertheless, some general policies can be identified. We first discuss the steps governments could take. Many of those we have already mentioned in the second article in this series. Here, we argue two priorities: a stimulating agricultural policy in general and policies to improve soil fertility in particular. This fourth article in the series is about agricultural policy; in the fifth and final article we will zoom in on soil fertility. In both articles, the key question is: what can we, from the Netherlands and the EU, contribute to this?

Africa is too dependent on world food market
Africa's food security has declined due to Covid-19, climate change and conflicts, including the Russian invasion of Ukraine. These events revealed how vulnerable Africa is due to its increased dependence on global markets. Africa wants to become more self-sufficient. A food summit last January in Dakar focused therefore not only on food security, but on the theme, ‘Feed Africa: Food Sovereignty and Resilience’.
The 34 participating governments reiterated their intentions, already declared in 2003, to devote 10 percent of their budgets to agriculture. The final declaration even raised the expectation that Africa, with 65% of the world's (as yet) unused arable land, could potentially contribute to the food supply of the rest of the world, but that would seem too far fetched.

Agricultural policy as a key incentive
An enabling agricultural policy that provides opportunities and incentives for farmers to increase the productivity of their arable land is of fundamental importance. In order to achieve that, at least three policy goals are required: stable and cost-covering prices, improving infrastructure, and promoting viable farms.

For consumers, low food prices are beneficial in the short term, but this is offset by a drawback in the long run: low prices are an impediment to agricultural productivity gains, which are a prerequisite for socio-economic development and employment growth
Stable and cost-covering prices
Food crops account for the vast majority of agricultural production in tropical Africa. The volatility of production and lack of storage capacity result in very unstable food prices. Due to the disappointing production growth, countries have to import more food from overseas. Import prices are also volatile, and because of the open connection to the world market, the prices African farmers receive for their food crops tend to be low. Besides food crops, SSA also produces export crops such as cocoa, coffee and cotton, and horticultural products such as mangoes, avocados, and oranges for the European market. World market prices of these products are also very volatile. We limit ourselves here to the major food crops.

Low and unstable agricultural prices are crippling SSA's economy. To begin with, they prevent farmers from making the investments needed to sustainably intensify their production. This leads to soil degradation and a languishing rural economy, which in turn limits the market for other sectors across the country. Unstable prices also harm consumers; not just urban dwellers who depend entirely on purchased food, but also millions of rural households who produce less food than they need for themselves and are thus net buyers of food. On top of that, in an economy where people spend a large portion of their income on food, unstable food prices leads to large fluctuations in the amount of money people can spend on things other than food. This increases the investment risk for non-agricultural entrepreneurs, and that too hampers the growth of other sectors.

For consumers, low food prices are beneficial in the short term, but this is offset by a drawback in the long run: low prices are an impediment to agricultural productivity gains, which are a prerequisite for socio-economic development and employment growth in the many resource-poor countries.

It is therefore necessary to stabilise agricultural prices, and for products that the region can produce itself, to maintain them at a level that covers costs; not for the smallest farms, but for medium-sized, economically viable ones. At the same time, affordability of food for poorer households must be safeguarded. This combination might seem impossible to achieve, but can be achieved through the following four policy measures:

  1. The reduction of import tariffs and other trade restrictions within SSA itself. This allows countries to specialise in crops they excel at, which reduces costs. It also makes it easier for them to absorb local crop failures through imports from elsewhere in the region. Reducing internal import tariffs is already one of the goals of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) set up in 2019, which, as its name suggests, applies to the whole of Africa. By February, 46 out of the 54 African countries had already joined it, 42 of which are in SSA.

  2. The establishment of variable import levies on agricultural products at the common external borders. Increasing those levies when prices fall on the African market and decreasing them when prices rise (within a certain range) should stabilise prices on the internal market and keep them at cost-covering levels.

  3. The accessibility to better market information, including the use of mobile phones. This can benefit both farmers and consumers, especially in places where there are few competing middlemen. Where few middlemen are present, the result is that prices are artificially kept low for farmers and high for consumers. Such market information needs to be safeguarded against being influenced by interested companies.

  4. To ensure poor households' access to food: job creation projects (e.g. for road construction)3, food-for-work programmes4, school meals, food banks5, cash transfers6, and other measures. Food banks and school meals can be used simultaneously to support local farmers. School meals also enable more poor children to attend school and improve their educational performance.

With regard to funding: the first, third and fourth measures will cost SSA countries, the second one actually engenders money for them.

What can NL and the EU contribute to this?7
A disclaimer: the Netherlands and the EU can only contribute if African partners request it. Without such a request, support from Europe, even if offered with the best of intentions, can quickly be perceived as neo-colonialism. Partners include the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD), the African Development Bank and regional organisations and governments, NGOs and the private sector, including farmers' organisations and cooperatives. The chances of success are greater if national and regional priorities are aligned and the starting point is not purely based on our own policy goals.

First, price stabilisation. Developing countries that want to introduce tariffs have often been reprimanded by the IMF and the World Bank. These authorities regard import tariffs as market-distorting and are therefore quick to threaten to stop lending. The Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) that the EU has concluded with several African sub-regions, also limit the possibilities of introducing import tariffs. The WTO leaves more room, albeit not for variable import levies8.

It is time to remove the aforementioned barriers. This coincides with the spirit of the times: a growing scepticism about the blessings of neoliberalism. That ideology has brought with it some benefits, such as cutting unnecessary bureaucracy, but a free global market does not promote stable food prices.

The Netherlands and the EU can make the case at the World Bank, the IMF, and the WTO for giving Africa, SSA in particular, more freedom to establish its own policies. In addition, the EU itself can adjust EPAs. There are good arguments for this. Internal free trade with common import tariffs at external borders would make Africa a customs union - as is the EU itself. The EU itself has long used "defensive" variable import duties and, moreover, "offensive" export subsidies. It has used variable import duties to push off price instability to the rest of the world and export subsidies to dump surpluses. Export subsidies ended in 2016 and import duties were sharply reduced and are no longer variable. But that is no reason to deny a poor region like SSA the right to variable import duties. This is all the more true because the EU still supports its own farmers with billions in subsidies, which - though allowed within WTO rules - poor developing countries simply cannot afford.

Many farms are not even adjacent to a road, let alone a paved road, and this obviously hinders not only the supply of inputs such as fertilisers and seeds, but also the marketing of produce. As a result, farmers have hardly any incentive to increase productivity
To simultaneously guarantee poor households in Africa access to (healthy) food, the Netherlands and the EU could subsidise employment projects, work-for-food programmes, cash transfer programmes, school meal programmes, and food banks9.

Investing in infrastructure for transport and storage
The second priority is investing in infrastructure for transport and storage. The current limited transport resources and infrastructure are a barrier to agricultural development in large parts of SSA, especially for farming away from cities. Many farms are not even adjacent to a road, let alone a paved road, and this obviously hinders not only the supply of inputs such as fertilisers and seeds, but also the marketing of produce. As a result, farmers have hardly any incentive to increase productivity. Moreover, time-consuming transport leads to spoilage and wastage of (especially fresh) produce.

Modern transport gives farmers better access to supply and marketing markets. As a result, they get better prices for their produce and inputs like fertilisers and seeds become cheaper. That combination provides them with a powerful incentive to increase production per hectare. This was already evident in Southeast Asia in the 1960s and 1970s. Infrastructure improvements are already underway in SSA, but this development has started much later than in Asia. This was partly because population density was still low for centuries, but also due to other political priorities.

Modern storage capacity, with refrigeration where necessary, is needed to smooth out seasonal fluctuations in domestic food crop prices and reduce product spoilage. For consumers, investments in transport and storage have the advantage of making domestic food cheaper. That benefit will increase as Africa starts reducing or eliminating its domestic import tariffs.

What can the Netherlands and the EU contribute to this?
Contributions will consist mainly of support with knowledge, technology and co-financing of investments in the construction and improvement of motorways and railways. This should not only involve connections between mines and port cities or between cities and other cities (as the colonial powers used to do and as China is often doing again)10, but also connecting cities with agricultural areas. In addition, investments in storage and cooling facilities deserve support. The Netherlands is rich in knowledge in these areas and already utilises this expertise in chain development programmes.

The Netherlands also finances the Develop to Build (D2B) programme, which focuses on investments in food security, water, climate and Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR). In 2020, investments were made in 19 countries in SSA. Unfortunately, only 12% of ongoing projects focused on transport & logistics and not even one was devoted to agriculture11.

Processing cocoa beans in Africa into cocoa butter and cocoa mass (the ingredients for chocolate) while reducing exports of raw cocoa beans will keep the value addition in Africa
Also relevant is the international Private Infrastructure Development Group (PIDG), funded by the UK and the Netherlands, among others. The group focuses on infrastructure that contributes to poverty reduction, the SDGs and energy transition. Most of the available funds go to SSA. However, of the $507 million budget in 2021 for infrastructure, more than half was allocated to the energy sector and only 2% to agricultural infrastructure, 4% to storage & logistics and 12% to transport.

Recently, is has become possible to join the G7's Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment for co-financing. This Partnership, launched in 2021, has a budget of $600 billion. The EU itself would benefit from a more active role, as it has been far surpassed as an investor by China and as a result has lost considerable authority and political influence in SSA.

Promoting viable farms
The third priority is promoting viable farms. Indeed, in addition to the yield gaps mentioned, there are also farm size gaps. Due to slow economic development and lack of alternative employment opportunities, millions of people in SSA are forced to make a living on tiny pieces of land. More than half of the farms are smaller than one hectare. And even if infrastructure and markets were sorted out and yield gaps bridged, many of these subsistence farms are still too small to generate a livable income12. As a result, they also lack access to credit.

Alternative employment is urgently needed for these ‘village poor’ (see below). If employment is ensured, retiring farmers can sell or otherwise transfer their land to others so that the land can become available for farms that are viable. But this is not a certainty, as these farmers often want to keep their land, either for themselves as pension provision, as insurance against setbacks, or for their children. Moreover, selling farmland to third parties is not possible everywhere or, in some cases, not even legally permitted. On top of this, because the birth rate in rural areas is still high, a disastrous fragmentation often follows the death of the farmer, even of small farms. By the way, land scarcity was one of the causes of the genocide in Rwanda in 1994.

To promote viable farms, five types of measures are important:

  1. Promotion of high-value, labour-intensive agricultural sectors, especially horticulture. Increasing urbanisation and a growing middle class can create better opportunities for these to develop.

  2. A strong industrialisation policy. So far, industrialisation in SSA has taken off only sparsely. It is high time to tackle it more vigorously. A limitation for export-oriented industrialisation in SSA, is that it lacks the advantages that Asia has enjoyed over the past half century, such as Western outsourcing, low wages and strong labour discipline.
    Therefore, industrialisation will have to focus mainly on the African market and import substitution. Starting points could be the production of fertilisers, food processing (e.g. cocoa), textiles and energy (solar and wind). For example, a focus on the export of roasted coffee and coffee products will keep a larger share of the value addition in Africa. The same is true for processing cocoa beans in Africa into cocoa butter and cocoa mass (the ingredients for chocolate) and reducing exports of raw cocoa beans. Over time, there should be investments in factories with guaranteed refrigeration for chocolate production, preferably in a port area. Then the value addition of brands can take place in Africa. To expedite such developments, import tariffs may be needed again

  3. Introduction of a general form of old-age provision that will reduce the need for small landowners to hold on to their land purely to ensure some way of retirement.

  4. Facilitation of cooperatives13. These can strengthen the position of small farmers in markets for land, inputs, products and credit.

  5. Strengthening of farmers' land rights can ensure that land that becomes available does not go to domestic or foreign large landowners or investors, but to small farmers who have the potential to grow into a viable business. Viable businesses are more creditworthy. It also helps against farmland fragmentation14.

What can NL and the EU contribute to this?
It is of the greatest strategic importance for the EU to allow Africa to develop and protect import-substituting industries - an additional reason to adjust the EPAs. We can hardly be proud that Dutch companies in Africa are competing with local farmers' dairies or selling batik fabrics that African cotton countries could also produce themselves. This point is exactly where the lack of coherence between development policy and European trade policy wreaks havoc.

We can hardly be proud that Dutch companies in Africa are competing with local farmers' dairies or selling batik fabrics that African cotton countries could also produce themselves. This point is exactly where the lack of coherence between development policy and European trade policy wreaks havoc
In addition, the Netherlands and the EU could encourage the strengthening of farmers' land rights, which also provides an incentive for intensification. The Netherlands is already somewhat active here with the LAND-at-scale programme, which focuses on pilots with setting up land registers, land use planning, and upscaling them. Credit support is also important. The Netherlands is involved in this through, among others, the Sustainable Trade Initiative's Farmfit Fund, in which Rabobank and FMO also participate. But that fund focuses mainly on cash crops such as coffee and cocoa, much less on food crops such as cassava and rice - a consequence of the (too) close link the Netherlands has established between its development and export policies. Separately, with its highly developed horticultural knowledge, the Netherlands could contribute to sustainable intensification of horticulture, especially around cities. Several projects are already under way, including the Hortifresh projects in West Africa.

On top of that, the sharing of experiences gained by the Netherlands and France in facilitating cooperatives could be considered. Agriterra already advises a large number of cooperatives in 10 countries in SSA15.

Furthermore, the Netherlands and the EU could promote even more assiduously the strengthening of women's rights. The Netherlands should, for a certainty, continue the generous contributions it already gives to the United Nations Population Fund, which supports women not to have more children than they want. That in itself is important, but moderating the high birth rate also helps to counter the fragmentation of smallholder farms.

If the Netherlands and the EU opt for policies like those advocated above, they will have to settle for some losses, for instance where food exporting and cocoa importing companies are concerned. But they can also benefit if the economy in SSA flourishes and exports of technology, knowledge, and seeds can grow.16

In the next article, we will zoom in on soil fertility: what can African countries do to increase it and how can the Netherlands and the EU support that?

In three previous articles, Henk Breman and Wouter van der Weijden outlined what agriculture and governments in SSA themselves can do about sustainable intensification (click on the links for article 1, 2, 3). In this fourth article, co-authored by Niek Koning and Monqiue Calon, supported by Ken Giller, they explore in more detail what governments can do and what the Netherlands and the EU can contribute, in addition to what they are already doing.
Wouter van der Weijden is an environmental biologist and director of the Centre for Agriculture and Environment Foundation.
Henk Breman is an agrobiologist with long-term research experience in several African countries and author of the book From fed by the world to food security - Accelerating agricultural development in Africa (2019).
Niek Koning is an agricultural economist and author of the book Food Security, Agricultural Policies and Economic Growth - Long-term Dynamics in the Past, Present and Future (2017).
Monique Calon is an agronomist with long-term work experience in Africa on rural development and then as policy officer on food security and private sector development at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Ken Giller is professor of Plant Production Systems at Wageningen University, also with long-term research experience in SSA.

1. We use the term ‘Sub-Saharan Africa’ and not ‘tropical Africa’ here. Reason: only the small countries of Swaziland and Eswatini are completely outside the tropics; the large countries of South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Mozambique only partially. But bear in mind that South Africa is quite different within SSA, partly because of its larger-scale agriculture and its high rate of industrialisation.
2. Demographers still argue about whether rising wealth leads to less or more emigration. On the one hand, as incomes rise, the urge for poor to emigrate diminishes, but on the other hand they then also have more money to pay travel expenses and people smugglers. The ‘migration hump theory’ states that in poor countries, as income rises, emigration first increases, but starts to fall above $7,000 - $10,000 per capita. The statistical underpinnings of this link have been criticised. See, among others, De Correspondent.
3. One important example are the labour-intensive public works programmes that are or have been running in SSA in dozens of countries. The projects range from transport, energy and drinking water infrastructure to soil improvement, agroforestry construction, water treatment and waste management. Many projects had been dismantled in the 1990s following the neoliberal Structural Adjustment Programmes, but some have been resumed. For an overview and evaluation, see Econstor.
4. One example is the World Food Programme's Food Assistance for Assets (FFA) projects. In this programme, communities with low food security are offered food in exchange for creating or restoring their productive assets such as degraded land, water ponds, roads and forests.
5. Food banks have existed in South Africa since 2009.
6. Unicef advocates cash transfers to parents of children under 5. These would also lead to economic growth.
7. We do not aim for completeness here, but suffice with some illustrative examples of relevant programmes. We pay more attention to Dutch than European policy. The Netherlands can take some measures independently, others better in an EU context.
8. However, levies that vary with the seasons are allowed, as Senegal does for onions, for example.
9. The Netherlands does already fund the 2SCALE programme, which works in 9 countries in SSA. It aims to encourage inclusive agribusiness models for SMEs and farmer groups in six West African countries. Products go to local and regional markets, including poor consumers.
10. China's ambitious One Belt, One Road plan has three main goals, also in Africa: access to raw materials, access to sales markets and expanding its political sphere of influence. The country is investing in more than 20 seaports in SSA and several connected railway lines, some leading to other cities and others to mines and oil fields. China also sometimes rapidly constructs power plants, solar parks and telephone networks, mostly in exchange for access to raw materials, and/or political influence. Countries can sometimes buy off debt by transferring ownership of a port or airport to China. For some examples, see Africa Centre.
11. Only one project also (co-)focused on SRHR. The programme helps companies, governments and investors finance and develop projects that contribute to the UN's Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as well as to the Dutch economy. For a critical mid-term review, see SEO. Stakeholders had concerns about the rapid change of political priorities and officials involved, and the lack of a long-term vision.
12. K.E. Giller et al (2021) in Food Security: Small farms and development in sub-Saharan Africa: Farming for food, for income or for lack of better options?
13. Examples can be found in cocoa farming in Ghana, among others, see Kuapakokoo. Incidentally, the term 'cooperatives' is in bad taste among many African farmers, as they have too often been used de facto as a tax instrument. That is why NGOs and others often do not speak of 'cooperatives' but use terms like 'self help groups'.
14. In the literature numerous other options to combat fragmentation are mentioned, including regulation of minimum plot size in the case of subdivision, shared ownership, agricultural cooperatives and family planning. Given the enormous diversity in ownership, there is no one-size-fits-all. See, among others: P.D. Ntihinyurwa & W.T. De Vries, Farmland Fragmentation, Farmland Consolidation and Food Security: Land 2021, 10 (2): 129.
15. Also potentially relevant are some of the broad experiences of the EU and the Netherlands with structural measures to promote viable farms. But remember: the differences are wide. At the time, for example, the EU had a growing non-agricultural labour market that promoted economies of scale.
16. In time, the pressure on emigration could also decrease, and with it unwanted emigration to Europe. But see also note 2.