Prioritizing Productivity in Sub-Saharan Africa

Sub-Saharan Africa has struggled to achieve the consistent gains in productivity growth seen is other parts of the world.

Farmers still rely on land expansion as their principal strategy for increasing output, rather than using improved inputs and practices to produce more on the land they already cultivate (Figure 1).

Lack of access to hybrid seed, fertilizer and crop protection products and veterinary medicine makes it difficult for small-scale farmers to cope with drought, crop pests and livestock diseases.  Without irrigation, farmers are beholden to the rain and without healthy soils, the rain erodes the land and the nutrients in the soil.  Agriculture is labor intensive, particularly for women, and mechanization is expensive and hard to access.

The majority of the continent’s farmers consume most, if not all the crop and livestock products they grow and rely on non-farm labor for their income. They also have limited access to public goods such as training and education, roads, electricity or banking systems.

As a result, farmers struggle to increase their farm’s productivity, accumulate savings for the future or acquire skills to work in a value-added agricultural business or non-agricultural trade.

The challenges are many, but so are the opportunities.

Africa has the potential to be an agricultural breadbasket, and in doing so, make significant progress towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). According to the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), a one-percent increase in crop productivity reduces the number of poor people by 0.72 percent.1 Smart public policies, increased public-sector investments and public-private-producer partnerships are the foundation of sustained agricultural productivity growth that will benefit producers, consumers and the environment.

The maize sector in Zambia, described below, provides insight into the challenges faced by African farmers. Farmers across Africa share similar obstacles to increasing their productivity.

Also available are stories describing how the public and private sectors are collaborating with farmers across Africa to build agricultural economies that are productive, resilient and sustainable.

Building A Sustainable Productive Maize Sector in Zambia

Figure 2: Maize Surplus and Deficit Countries in Southern Africa

In Zambia, 70 percent of the economically active population work in agriculture and 80 percent of Zambia’s 1.4 million farmers produce maize.2

Zambia’s domestic demand for maize continues to rise, fueled by increases in population, incomes and a growing consumption of animal protein.

There are also opportunities to increase Zambia exports of maize to neighboring countries. Research compiled by several regional policy institutes indicates that over the next decade, Zambia will continue to produce annual surpluses of maize, while its neighbors will have small surpluses or maize-deficits (Figure 2).3

But Zambia’s farmers are struggling to take advantage of these market opportunities.

Most farmers cultivate less than two hectares and consume most, if not all, of the maize they produce. As a result, only 27 percent of rural households are net sellers of maize (2008).4 Zambian farmers are undercapitalized with little access to finance, making it difficult to invest in productivity-enhancing and labor-saving technologies.

The following are examples of public policies and investments that can help Zambia’s small-scale and emerging farmers access to innovations, capital and knowledge they need to grow and thrive. Many farmers across Africa would benefit from similar policies and investments.

Public sector investments in agricultural research and development in Zambia are anemic. Since 1981, government R&D spending, as a portion of agricultural GDP, has dropped from 2.35 percent to 0.29 percent, which translates to a decrease of spending per agricultural worker from $18.38 to $2.77.5

In 2015, 58 percent of the agriculture budget ($305 million) was slated for fertilizer and hybrid seed subsidies and to purchase maize from small and medium-scale farmers for the national food reserves.6

To maximize limited resources, Zambian policymakers may consider prioritizing agricultural spending on research, development and extension, which provide the greatest return on investment for increasing productivity.

While public investments in agricultural research are very low, Zambia’s government has successfully promoted the use of conservation agriculture techniques.  Here, a Zambian farmer digs down into his maize field to show how conservation agriculture practices have conserved the moisture in the soil. Photo credit: Ann Steensland/GHI

The Food Reserve Agency (FRA) purchases maize from small-scale farmers at a higher-than-market price to reduce rural poverty and to stock its national food reserves.

While the FRA premium applies only to government maize purchases, farmers expect private traders to match the FRA price. As a result, Zambian maize is consistently the most expensive in the region, which makes it difficult to compete with less expensive maize from South Africa.

This intervention in the maize markets is a disincentive for private traders, as well as large-scale producers who are increasingly moving out of maize production.

To maximize market opportunities, particularly for small-scale farmers, market-enhancing reforms of FRA’s structure and operations are essential, including reducing the amount of maize purchased for the FRA and managing risk through commodity markets rather than stockpiles of maize.

Photo credit: Kelly Winquist

Except for large land-blocks that are leased by the government to commercial and emerging farmers, most of the agricultural land in Zambia is controlled by customary authorities.  Farmers in customary areas do not have formal land title to the areas they cultivate.

In lieu of a formal leasehold, farmers receive permission from customary authorities to cultivate a specific plot of land, but this permission does not secure their tenure.  For women, obtaining leaseholds is complicated by the patriarchal traditions in customary areas.

Increasing access to secure land title for small-scale producers needs to be a priority, particularly for women who are more likely than men to invest in productivity-enhancing technologies.7

A hydroelectric dam on Lake Kariba supplies electricity to the Copperbelt mining region of Zambia.

Zambia has invested heavily in hydroelectric power and has been, at times, a net exporter of electricity. But the aging power grid has been pushed beyond its limits and cannot keep up with the skyrocketing demand

Regular and sustained power cuts decrease agricultural output and productivity because data and precision agriculture technologies require a reliable power source to maximize their productivity-enhancing benefits.

As a land-locked country, Zambia relies on roads for domestic markets and regional trade. In 2009, the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) estimated that 70 percent of Zambia’s trade volume traverses its 40,000-kilometer road network, but less than one quarter of them are paved.

Extending public goods such as transportation and electricity into rural areas will help increase the productivity and incomes of Zambia’s small-scale farmers.

Zambian farmers load potatoes onto a truck for sale in neighboring Malawi.

Access to transportation infrastructure is important, but the affordability of using the infrastructure also affects producers’ profitability.

Even with improved roads, the expenses incurred by multiple road blocks, bribes and long wait times at the border take a bite out of the price producers receive for their goods. The World Bank reported that a truck traveling a single 90 kilometer stretch of road into Nairobi, encountered 19 roadblocks, adding more than 3 hours to the travel time.

Long waits at the border are also costly. Improving border crossing times will increase the competitiveness of Zambian agricultural producers by decreasing the cost of inputs such as fertilizer and machinery and by reducing the amount of product that goes to waste due to a lack of cold storage.

Learn about partnerships that are improving productivity and sustainability for small-scale crop and livestock farmers across Africa, and initiatives to improve nutrition and livelihoods.


Partnerships Improving Productivity in Africa

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