Historical root causes of this disappointing evolution are the comparatively late emergence of agriculture and the abundance of poor soils in the region, which entailed population densities and farming systems with low man-land ratios. In its turn, this led to infrastructural underdevelopment and to kin-centered societies with pronatalistic cultures and polities that were vulnerable to the actions of more developed states. This history has had consequences that are felt to the present day.

Meanwhile, the situation in Sub-Saharan Africa has radically changed. Population skyrocketed, which strongly increased the pressure on land. Since the fossil fuel revolution, soil fertility can be improved or sustained with artificial fertilizers, but this has happened far too little in the region. Growing land scarcity forced farmers to use their land more intensively, but because of insufficient fertilization, this entailed widespread soil degradation, even on naturally fertile lands. By the same token, the increase in yields has remained disappointingly slow – even if some countries in the region have done better in this respect than other ones.

Growing land scarcity forced farmers to use their land more intensively, but because of insufficient fertilization, this entailed widespread soil degradation, even on naturally fertile lands
The trailing agricultural development has not been compensated by economic growth in industry and modern services. Neither have the recent growth in mining and the remarkable ICT revolution in some countries resulted in widely distributed increases in wealth. The modest increase in per capita production since the 1970s, and its new decline during the last half decade, imply an imbalance between economic development and population growth.

In this article we focus on two factors in this imbalance that we see as vital. The first is the lack of adequate farm policies, the second, the agricultural and demographic effects of the ecological endowments and history of the region that make this lack even more consequential. We address these issues and conclude by giving a number of recommendations for economic and population policies.

Should Africa support its farmers to energize its economy?
Modern economic growth implies the shift of labour to industry and modern services, but to enable this structural transformation, the farm sector has to play an active role. Agriculture must develop to provide opportunities for agro-businesses, to free and feed workers for other sectors, and to create domestic markets for infant industries that cannot yet compete in world markets. Besides, agricultural development is a school for life where people develop labour discipline, new skills, and the habit to deal fairly with individuals outside their close circle of neighbours and kin. This last aspect – generalized trust – is a sine qua non for the success of modern industries and services that involve transactions with strangers all the time.

Agricultural development is a school for life where people develop labour discipline, new skills, and the habit to deal fairly with individuals outside their close circle of neighbours and kin
In its turn, industrialization and the rise of modern services are needed to provide new jobs to the rural underclasses, so that farm progress is not impeded by the crowding of people on the land who lack resources for investment and innovation. It means that agricultural and non-agricultural development have to proceed hand in hand; the one will not succeed without the other.

The problem is that agricultural development doesn’t start automatically. This is because the farm sector suffers from major ‘market failure’. For most of world history, population growth raised agricultural prices, which stimulated investment in farming. However, the blessings of the Industrial Revolution have caused chronic oversupply in international agricultural markets in spite of an explosion in world population. Since the late-19th century, international agricultural prices have fluctuated downward, putting a squeeze on farm profits. In other sectors, such an evolution prompted a far-reaching concentration of production to cut costs and boost market power – a response facilitated by a huge increase in economies of scale, another effect of the Industrial Revolution. However, unlike industry or mining, agriculture was bound to biological processes. This limited the scale of machines and the hours per year during which they could be used, as well as the possibilities for standardizing the labour process and controlling hired workers. While the Industrial Revolution caused a squeeze on farm profits, therefore, it failed to revolutionize the economies of scale in farming. This situation made primary agriculture unattractive for large companies, causing them to withdraw to the trading and processing of agricultural products.

Who continued were smallholder farmers and second-rate agricultural capitalists – including large farmers in Africa’s white settler zones – who survived by overexploiting their workers. In the long run, the only real option for sustained agricultural progress was the modernization of viable smallholder farms. However, if left to themselves, even somewhat more substantial smallholder farmers had little scope for innovating their production. They survived by living frugally and through supplementary earnings from household members who are working off-farm, but they were ill-equipped for building feeder roads, organizing modern marketing and supply chains, setting up research labs, and other conditions for sustained productivity growth. Agro-industrial companies, for their part, were wary of doing business with large numbers of small farmers, so that the latter were often left dependent on traditional middlemen.

The only real option for sustained agricultural progress was the modernization of viable smallholder farms
The outcome was that agricultural modernization came to rely on stimulating and supportive government intervention. Governments had to provide rural infrastructure, create agricultural knowledge systems, and help to overcome teething problems in supply and marketing chains. Moreover, they had to stabilize markets and secure workable prices, for otherwise, in spite of their frugality, even viable smallholder farmers would have no margins left for investment.

In Western countries and Japan, governments have assumed this role from an early date and, after decolonization, other Asian countries have followed their example. All these countries saw rapid farm progress, paving the way for industrialization which gave jobs to the rural poor. Their economies prospered and problems of undernourishment dwindled. Even if they lacked the resources to produce all food their citizens demanded, their industries provided enough international purchasing power to supplement their domestic food production with imports. Conversely, countries whose governments failed to support viable smallholder farmers became dependent on the charity of other nations. Their agricultural hinterland languished. Their industrialization was slow or stagnated. Their cities became refuges for poor people fleeing the land, but they could not provide them with sufficient employment. Such countries remained food insecure, even if their natural resources would suffice for feeding their populations had they used them well.

In our view, this is what has happened in much of Sub-Saharan Africa. Because of the low natural soil fertility of many African lands, the lack of adequate farm policies has had even more serious consequences than in other parts of the world. Without external sources of soil nutrients, the yield increases that can be achieved with methods such as introduction of leguminous crops are quite limited.1 Nevertheless, the use of fertilizer per hectare in Sub-Saharan Africa is barely one-tenth of the world average. The situation is complicated by the underdevelopment of rural infrastructure – the legacy of a history with low population densities. As a consequence, at some distance from the cities, high transport costs worsen the input-output price ratios for farmers discouraging them from investing in fertilizer and other inputs that they need for raising their productivity. Only strong government policies, including infrastructural investment and price policies that make using fertilizer and soil rehabilitation measures attractive for farmers, can redress this. In the current situation, such policies are largely absent, with disastrous effects on agricultural development, and thereby on economic growth at large.

The lack of adequate farm policies has had even more serious consequences than in other parts of the world
High population growth: boon or burden?
The historical low population densities in Sub-Saharan Africa have now become a thing of the past. Today, population density (50p/km2) is even higher than that in Northern America (19/km2), Latin America (31/km2) or Oceania (5/km2), and is forecasted to rise to values similar to Western Europe by the end of this century. One advantage of population growth is that it reduces the per capita costs of rural infrastructure, making investment in it more cost-effective. Another – potential – advantage is the ‘demographic dividend’ that arises when a decline in birth rates after a period of rapid population growth results in a population bulge in the active age groups. This potential is realized when the large young cohorts in the active age range have access to educational and economic resources for development, which in turn will lead to increasing per capita incomes (i.e. economic growth exceeding population growth) and additional resources for further investments in education, infrastructure and employment generation. It has contributed to the rapid economic growth in North America, Europe, and former lower-income countries like South-Korea that have become middle- or higher income countries in the second half of the 20th century. Growing incomes are important incentives for households to have fewer children. Children’s health conditions improve with a greater likelihood of survival beyond adolescence. Parents therefore need fewer children to be certain that at least some of them survive into adulthood. At the same time children become less important as cheap labor and security for old-age provisions. Investments in education for a smaller offspring become cost-effective. Women follow middle and higher education and participate in the labor market, which competes with their role as providers of newborns. The West and Asian countries have profited from this virtuous cycle of accelerated economic growth and a declining dependency ratio. On the other hand, in countries where population continues growing very fast, economic growth may not be able to keep up with this pace, resulting in decreasing per capita income, unemployment, inadequate educational and health care facilities, as well as problems of food security. These countries face a situation of a demographic burden, where high population growth, resulting in a very young age structure, consumes all the resources needed for development. These countries risk being trapped in a vicious downward spiral, where poverty, insecurity and continued population growth reinforce each other. But at the same time countries which are able, for whatever reason, to reduce population growth create favorable conditions for economic growth, although these are by no means sufficient conditions.

In addition to investment in rural roads and agricultural services, adequate farm policies may need to include improving and stabilizing price relations for farmers
Will Sub-Saharan Africa be able to realize a virtuous cycle of economic and demographic growth or take the vicious spiralling path down in the coming decades? Similar to all other regions in the world the birth rate is decreasing, but the process started later, and at a slower pace. The current birth rate (4.5 children/woman) is comparable to that of Asia around 1970. It took Asia another 50 years to reach replacement level (2.1). The UN projects that Sub-Saharan Africa will only reach this value by the end of the century. These projections lead to a doubling of the region’s population in in the coming 30 years (from currently 1.1 to 2.1 billion in 2050). Such population growth rates were never realized in prolonged time periods in high-income countries, nor in Asia. Moreover, Europe was able to export a significant share of its population surplus to the New World in the late 19th and early 20th century; an option that is hardly open to African populations, for many reasons. To be sure, other institutes predict a more moderate population growth. Taking explicitly the increase in education into account, for instance, the Wittgenstein Centre projects a population of 1.6 billion in 2050 and 2.3 billion by the end of the century – 0.5 billion and 1.7 billion lower, respectively, than the UN estimate. But even with such lower projections, for many countries in the region, the chances of realizing the demographic dividend seem bleak, and instead the rapid population growth viz-a-vis economic growth turns into a demographic burden.

Why this difference between the demographic development of Sub-Saharan Africa and for instance Asia? Part of the explanation is the lagging economic development of the region itself, mainly caused by an underdeveloped agricultural sector, and consequently the later start of the demographic transition. Nevertheless, countries lacking economic growth have also been able to reduce fertility, for instance through effective family planning policies, but these examples are mostly to be found in Asia (e.g. Bangladesh), with Rwanda an exceptional case in Africa. Urbanization is another factor with a downward effect on birth rates – women in cities on average have 1.8 child less than rural women – but the effect is probably limited because the rapid growth of mega-cities is the result of the flight of the young from rural regions where they have little economic perspective rather than of the gravity forces of the city as economic centres of development, thus creating a large slum-economy.

We think it is time that Africans take matters into their own hands, and decide for themselves what is needed to make their economies flourish
Next to the general effect of lagging economic development, which had also been observed in Asia before the green revolution in the sixties, the second factor why African demographic development is different is also rooted in the specific agricultural context of the region. It appears that there is a specific ‘Africa factor’ in the birth rate: the number of children per women is about one child higher than in other low-income regions with similar income and educational levels in the world. This results from a pro-natalistic culture, that originates in the specific inherited rural societal structures. In extensive agricultural systems on low fertility soils it was more important to have abundant labor supply than owning land. Men and adolescent boys cleared the land for cultivation, and women, with the help of child labor, produced the vegetable food. Moreover, the amount of land a man was entitled to was proportional to his family size. So, having more women and many children increased his household income and status. By contrast, in the intensive crop systems in Europe and Asia, an additional child meant one more mouth to be filled without increased production. The inherited family structures in Africa also reduce the effect of out-of-home jobs for women: there is always an aunt or other relative to take care of the young children. This Africa factor works in multiple ways. First, African men and women want more children than women in similar conditions elsewhere. Second, governments in Sub-Saharan Africa have been less active than those in other regions in implementing family planning and Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights policies that help families to attain the number of children they desire.

How to reverse the spiral?
In our view, breaking the vicious spiral of slow economic growth, high population growth and unfavourable age structure requires effective developmental policies in the first place. A top priority is active agricultural policies. That so many African countries have failed to support their farmers has internal as well as external causes. Internal factors include the tendency of politicians to placate city dwellers with cheap imported food, and the low social status of food production, which has traditionally been a woman’s job. Only Africans can change this.

The main external factor is the policies of Western powers. Before Independence, these failed to provide the infrastructure and price support needed for smallholder development in their colonies. From the 1980s, they repeated their error by imposing austerity and free trade on African governments. In so doing they ignored the economic history of their own countries and many Asian countries, where successful industrialization was only achieved after governments began to support the modernization of viable smallholder farms. Some Western-based NGOs are now preaching that African agriculture should develop with little fertilizer and little government intervention. In our view, this ‘agro-ecological’ gospel is a romantic reaction to the far-reaching modernization of agriculture in the West itself – one that disregards the conditions of economic development and the low soil fertility of many African lands. We think it is time that Africans take matters into their own hands, and decide for themselves what is needed to make their economies flourish.

Next to active agricultural policies and economic development targeted measures are needed to reduce population growth on a strictly voluntary basis
In addition to investment in rural roads and agricultural services, adequate farm policies may need to include improving and stabilizing price relations for farmers. In this regard, it may also prove necessary to apply tariffs on imported food. Of course, such tariffs may hurt poor food buyers in the short term. However, this should be redressed through workfare programs, school meals or other targeted measures – not by continuing a situation that thwarts the economic development that is needed to help the poor in the long run.

Next to active agricultural policies and economic development targeted measures are needed to reduce population growth on a strictly voluntary basis. Closing the gap between actual and desired number of children a lot would already be an important step. Effective policies should go beyond the provision of contraceptives: they should address all aspects of sexual and reproductive health and rights. Implementation of such policies need not wait for economic growth but could be effective in their own right, next to prolonged education, for girls as well as boys. A combination of active agricultural, developmental, educational and population policies is required to help turn the economic-demographic vicious cycle into a virtuous one leading to real development.

1. That animal manure would offer a way out, as some are thinking, is a misunderstanding. Animals eat plants, and so recycle rather than add soil nutrients – unless they are grazed on nearby pastureland, but the availability of this is rapidly being restricted by population growth.

In writing 'High population growth and sluggish economic development in Sub-Saharan Africa: how to reverse the spiral?' we have benefited greatly from discussions in and feedback from a study group on population growth, food security and economic development which was initiated by Wouter van der Weijden and also included Henk Breman, Monique Calon, Ken Giller, Dick Veerman and Judith Westeneng. We thank them for their contributions.