In the first article of this five-part series, we saw that agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) can increase its yields faster and significantly. If it does so by increasing production per hectare, many forests and savannahs can be spared. Soil improvement and increased use of fertilisers then become the first priority. In this article, we explore how African governments can encourage intensification.

There are several policy options for accelerating intensification, but the differences between countries are significant, both socio-economically and agro-ecologically. Therefore, there is no ‘one size fits all’. In this context, we can broadly categorise SSA countries into three groups:

  • Group A: Countries with rapid agricultural development. In these countries active agricultural policies are already in place and markets for products and inputs are relatively well developed. Nevertheless, around 15% of the population in these countries still experiences hunger regularly and productivity could still almost triple on average;

  • Group B: Countries with slow or no agricultural development. In these countries about 30% of the population suffers regularly from hunger, while productivity could increase sixfold on average. These countries tend to score high on corruption, social fragility and gender inequality1;

  • Group C: Countries that have done little in the way of agricultural development but nevertheless have a relatively high degree of food security because they pay for food imports from the revenues generated by energy (oil, coal, gas)2, minerals and/or industry.

Perhaps the most widely advocated policy measure for African agriculture is: increased and better agricultural education. This can certainly help, but not everywhere. Education makes sense in country group A, where broader agricultural policies are already in place and there is a favourable infrastructure. In this group, education can reach more farmers, while fertilisation and soil care can be improved through more local, site-specific advice. This requires, among other things, thorough soil analyses. In the absence of such analyses, even the most experienced farmers on good soils are still far from achieving their potential production.

Group B is very different. In these countries, education at the farmer level makes little sense as long as governments do not implement an active and broad agricultural policy. Example: in the DR Congo, education hardly had any effect, while in Rwanda (group A) the effect was much greater, partly because subsidies on fertilisers were provided at the same time. In group B, it seems more effective to first make governments and traders enthusiastic about higher agricultural productivity, especially with the argument that it can contribute to economic development and more stability.

In Group C countries, only South Africa has so far implemented an active and successful agricultural policy. Botswana also made progress, but the arable area in that country is small. The latter also applies to Namibia and Gabon, as these countries consist mainly of (semi)arid natural pastures and forest, respectively. In Gabon, therefore, agricultural development is nil, but in Botswana and Namibia, development of livestock husbandry is well underway. Today, all these countries get an impetus for a more active agricultural policy due to the high food prices on the world market. They have enough money to make their countries less dependent on food and fertiliser imports.

Promoting fertiliser use and production
Governments can promote the use of both fertiliser and organic matter by:
  • Improving fertiliser availability, in conjunction with improved seeds and better crop protection (chemical and/or ecological). This can be done through price measures, such as abolishing the import duties on fertilisers that a third of SSA countries still apply, or subsidies if necessary. Other measures: improvements in transports and agro trade networks;

  • Support for a supply of sufficient suitable organic matter. Support is often needed because investments in organic matter do not pay off as quickly as investments in fertilisers. Moreover, the quality of organic waste from villages and cities is often not too good. However, the availability of the main suitable organic matter, crop residues such as straw, will increase following the use of fertiliser.

In principle, integrated soil fertility management can also be encouraged by market players, for instance through a plus on the yield price.

Some countries in SSA have already set up their own fertiliser industry, and more may do so3. Energy-producing countries can produce their own nitrogen fertiliser, as South Africa and Nigeria already do on a considerable scale from coal and oil and natural gas, respectively. In March last year, the Nigerian president opened a huge fertiliser industry cum oil refinery by the company Dangote, intended to make Nigeria self-sufficient in fertiliser and food4. Elsewhere, renewable energy is also being used. Zimbabwe produced nitrogen fertiliser from hydropower in the past century5 and Angola is about to start doing so, in combination with local extraction of phosphate. In Zimbabwe, a solar energy park is now under development next to a nitrogen fertiliser plant6.

Finally, all those countries that produce raw phosphate could upgrade it into fertiliser, as Morocco and Zimbabwe are doing, instead of exporting it as a raw material, as Togo and Tanzania do.

Pricing policy
Another crucial option is pricing policy. Such a policy should focus on stable prices that cover production costs on viable farms. This can be achieved on the one hand by import tariffs (at least temporarily) and on the other, by market interventions where a government body buys up products at low prices and resells them at high prices. The EU, India and several Southeast Asian countries have done so before (see Box).

Import tariffs are especially functional for products that the country can produce itself at a price not far above the world market price. Senegal, for example, uses import tariffs to protect its domestic rice and onion market in certain seasons. For staples such as maize and sorghum, as well as cocoa and coffee, pricing policies are even more necessary. Levies on imported products will encourage consumers to buy more domestic agricultural products and farmers to increase productivity, including through the use of fertilisers and organic matter.

Improve transport infrastructure
Another key policy option is improving transport, both infrastructure and means. For farmers, this can improve access to the markets of both inputs (fertilisers, seeds, etc.) and their food products. After all, the best incentive for higher productivity is the market.

The road and rail network in SSA has long remained underdeveloped due to low population density and different government priorities. The colonial powers invested in road and railroads, but almost exclusively between mines and seaports. Today, China is to some extent doing the same. But now that population density has risen in many areas, more opportunities for other connections, including between cities and their hinterland, are emerging and with those emerge the opportunities for a green revolution. That revolution is becoming visible in areas where the average availability of arable land has become tighter than about 0.25 ha per capita, the level at which the green revolution started in the 1960s in Southeast Asia. 7.

Other options
Point by point a few other options:
  • wherever it offers perspectives, invest in a dense infrastructure for reliable and affordable soil analyses and maps;

  • invest in storage facilities, such as refrigeration, to reduce the often high food losses;

  • develop value chains for agricultural products, in addition to food, such as cotton;

  • create more land use security to encourage investment;

  • promote gender equality. Agricultural development is difficult to achieve as long as women (who not infrequently do most of the work) cannot make decisions on equal footing.

With a thoughtful mix of measures, productivity and hence food security in SSA can be increased much faster than at the current pace. Countries such as South Africa, Ivory Coast and Ghana are already leading by example: in addition to agricultural development, there is reasonable food security.

Scaling up
As important as the above measures are, they are not sufficient for agricultural development. Farm size is also a crucial factor8. SSA still has millions of very small farms that are not economically viable. In Rwanda, for example, only 15% of farm households have 1 hectare or more of land. It is an illusion that all such farms can be kept afloat9. The production by these farms does not even cover the needs of their families, so producing for the market and buy the resources to increase their productivity is a far cry. So, besides "yield gaps", there are also "farm size gaps". For such too-small farmers alternative employment is much needed (see below).

But even the largest farms, which aim for as much profit as possible, often offer little perspective. They do not pay enough attention to sustainability, for instance. Therefore, most progress can be expected from medium-sized companies. They often invest the most in development. Most medium-sized farms are still family businesses with knowledge of and feeling for the soil, and they want to grow. Rapid population growth inhibits this development, as it still often leads to splitting up small and medium-sized farms.

Economies of scale are also hampered by the fact that farmers who have moved to cities tend to keep their land as security for their old age. To solve this problem, introducing a pension scheme might be considered. But only relatively rich countries such as South Africa and Botswana will be able to afford such a scheme.

Small-farmer problem
The small-farmer problem is old and big. It has played out in large parts of the Old World. In the Soviet Union, including Ukraine, it was tackled in the 1930s with violence and starvation. Later, collectivisation of agriculture also led to a huge famine in China, during the Great Leap Forward (1958-61). After that, Chinese farmers regained more freedom. In the EU, economies of scale under the Mansholt Plan were accompanied by strong incentives, not coercion and famine.

More relevant to SSA seems to be the approach Indonesia took after the bloody 1965/66s, when a great number of communists were killed. The new approach consisted of three pillars:

  • Macroeconomic stability by fighting excessive inflation and currency devaluation when oil made the currency more expensive. This kept agricultural exports competitive;

  • Freedom for farmers, including small farmers, to choose what they produce, from whom they buy, and to whom they sell. But at the same time an agricultural policy was in place with interventions aimed at stable prices of food (especially rice) through import and export controls, subsidies for buying up rice when prices were low, and subsidies for fertilisers and credit. This policy was somewhat reminiscent of the EU's Common Agricultural Policy;

  • In public spending, priority was placed on poverty reduction, rural areas and self-sufficiency in food through irrigation, road building and the aforementioned subsidies. Road construction also provided alternative employment for the smallholder farmers.

From there, Indonesia rapidly developed from a rice importer into a rice exporter, while poverty also declined rapidly. At the same time, the birth rate declined, partly as a result of family planning, which also reduced the urge to break up small farms.

Only then did industrial development begin. A similar development was seen in Malaysia.

Niek Koning (2017). ]i]Food Security, Agricultural Policies and Economic Growth - Long-term Dynamic in the Past, Present and Future.
David Henley (2015). Asia-Africa Development Divergence - A Question of Intent. This book is based on the major Leiden Tracking Development study, which compared the development of SSA with the much more successful development of Southeast Asia.

natuurlijke weiden en bossen verdwijnen door groei extensieve akkerbouwDoor groei extensieve akkerbouw verdwijnen natuurlijke weiden en bossen, Henk Breman

Two paradoxes apply here. The first: the more farmers, the less food security. It can be reasoned that if, in African countries, agriculture's contribution to gross national product fell from the current 40+% to less than 10%, the food security index would rise by half on a scale of 1-100: from 30 to 4610.

The second paradox: the faster agriculture grows, the faster its share of the economy falls11, even if its absolute value increases. Indeed, agricultural growth creates better conditions for the development of local industry and services. It is still far too little known that the rise of the Asian tigers in the 1960s and 1970s began with stimulation of agriculture rather than industry (see Box). In contrast, many SSA countries prioritised industrial development, but those efforts largely failed.

What other sectors can contribute to development?
Sound economic development obviously requires the development of sectors other than primary agriculture. For the sake of brevity, we suffice by mentioning six promising sectors, the first three of which, in turn, also directly drive agricultural development.

Those three sectors are:
  • value chains of agricultural products. Think of food industries that cannot compete in the global market but can compete in the domestic market, such as the beer, dairy and textile industries. Consider also industries that do have the potential to compete in the global market, such as cocoa and chocolate production based on cocoa butter;

  • the fertiliser industry, especially in countries with large reserves of energy carriers and raw materials. Nigeria and Angola are already working on it;

  • value chains of non-food products, such as cotton-based textiles.

Three other promising sectors are:
  • renewable energy, especially solar, in deserts (Sahara and the Namib Desert) and other arid areas not suitable for agriculture. Such energy can be used to produce electricity and hydrogen. Elsewhere, there are opportunities for hydropower. We already mentioned the use of hydropower for fertiliser production in Angola and Zimbabwe12;

  • ICT;

  • the tourism sector.

In developing all these sectors, governments and the African Development Bank can play a stimulating role.

  1. Agriculture and agribusiness development can be a powerful economic development strategy in most SSA countries.

  2. Not all farms can be kept alive. Millions of farms are too small to be economically viable. Alternative employment is needed for the peasants concerned. For this reason alone, economic development outside agriculture is a sine qua non.

  3. Governments can do a lot to boost the productivity of their agriculture, but the large differences between countries in terms of agroecology, agricultural development and presence of energy resources and mining necessitate customisation.

  4. Import duties on fertilisers should be abolished. This was already agreed in 2006 at the Abuja Heads of Government Summit but has not yet been implemented by a third of African countries. Countries with significant energy resources (fossil, hydro and solar) can also produce more fertiliser themselves.

  5. At the same time, all countries should actively promote the use of suitable organic matter.

  6. Improving transport, both infrastructure and means, is vital.

  7. Other policy options include investing in soil research, import duties on some agricultural products and women's empowerment.

1. H. Breman (2022). Africa’s fertilizer and soil health plan. Fertilizer Focus 40: 36-41.
2. Nigeria and Angola are major exporters of oil, Nigeria also of natural gas, and South Africa of coal.
3. Promotion of Fertiliser Production, Cross-border Trade and Consumption in Africa. UN Economic Commission for Africa / African Development Bank Group, 2018.
5. At issue was the cheap energy surplus from a hydroelectric plant at the Karibadam, which was used to produce hydrogen as a feedstock for nitrogen fertiliser. As that surplus continued to shrink, the fertiliser industry had to shrink as well and switch to imported ammonia.
7. See also H. Breman et al. (2019). From fed by the world to food security - Accelerating agricultural development in Africa. Wageningen University; especially section 3.2 and Figure 5. Thus, at low population densities, population growth can have benefits. At high density, when growth is rapid, it is not uncommon for the disadvantages to prevail, such as a high percentage of economically dependent populations (children and the elderly). More about that later in another article in this series.
8. K. Giller et al. (2021). Small farms and development in sub-Saharan Africa: Farming for food, for income or for lack of better options? Food Security
9. The contribution of small farms to world food security is also often exaggerated, even by the FAO, which estimates their contribution at 70%. In doing so, small farms are confused with family farms.
10. H. Breman et al. (2019). From fed by the world to food security.
11. Thesis of development economist John Mellor.
12. It is also conceivable that increasing the organic matter content in soils can make money in the international carbon market. See H. Breman, A. Gakou, A. Mando & M. Wopereis (2014). Enhancing integrated soil fertility management through the carbon market to combat resource degradation in overpopulated sahelian countries. IFDC-Africa.