Despite 15 years of economic growth African agriculture still lagging

Full video of the symposium is now available - Why Has Africa Been Slow in Developing its Agriculture?

A poor African farmer produces a little more corn than last year. He sells the surplus in a nearby urban market, and uses the money to purchase a shirt stitched by a local seamstress. With the bumper crop of corn, more and more farmers are interested in the seamstress' wares. The extra income allows her to buy better materials and a new sewing machine. Her business grows, and she begins to sell her work in bigger markets, further from her small village.

Years later, a poor farmer responds to an announcement for a job in a local clothing factory. The monthly wage is more than he currently makes in a year.

This is the vision that Dr. Ousmane Badiane, Africa Director for the International Food Policy Research Institute, presented to an audience of Stanford students and faculty on April 7. In a two-hour symposium entitled "Why Has Africa Been Slow in Developing its Agriculture?," Badiane outlined the steps he believes African nations must take to sustain economic growth and encourage high-value industrial development. Public investment in agriculture formed the backbone of his proposal.

Badiane said that although African nations have experienced unprecedented economic growth in the last 15 years, they still lag behind the developed world in economic sophistication. When workers leave agriculture for other sectors, he explained, the transition usually signifies economic progress.

But in Africa, too many farmers have abandoned their fields to peddle trinkets on the streets as part of a low-productivity service sector. They have left behind an underdeveloped and understaffed agricultural industry.

Agriculture has just plummeted too fast and too quickly in these countries," Badiane said. "Agriculture is not claiming the share of GDP and employment that it should."

When agriculture thrives, Badiane explained, economies grow and diversify. A wealthier rural population purchases products manufactured by urban entrepreneurs. Productive local farms buffer fluctuations in global crop output and food prices, improving security for urban industrial workers and reducing wage pressure on industrial employers.

"What agriculture needs is what industry needs," Badiane said, emphasizing that investment in one need not mean neglect of the other. "There are a lot of things you can do right by all the sectors at the same time."

In fact, according to Badiane, every $100 increase in agricultural output could result in up to a $130 increase in output from industry.

Badiane described one step that African governments have already taken to set the positive agriculture-industry feedback in motion. The Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Program is a cooperative effort by the African Union's 53 member nations to achieve ambitious goals for economic development and investment in agriculture by 2015.

Badiane commended the Program's unprecedented commitment to agricultural growth and its high standards for accountability, policy research, and performance review. He also praised the political momentum and unity that the initiative has generated within Africa, and the respect that it has earned in the international community.

However, Badiane admitted that agricultural growth in Africa cannot always proceed in harmony with other objectives. The need to finance agricultural research and development will put pressure on budgets for broader public welfare programs that Dr. Joel Samoff, a Stanford professor of African Studies, says most African nations simply cannot afford to de-fund.

"Most countries in Africa spend around $10 per person per year on health," says Samoff. "How do you reduce that?"

But Badiane suggested that governments may be able to address both agriculture and welfare simultaneously.

They will have to see how they can use social service budgets to sustain growth in agriculture," he said. "Look at health and education not as an entitlement, but as a tool to raise labor productivity."

Addressing the audience during a question-and-answer session following Badiane's talk, Harvard Development Professor, Emeritus, Peter Timmer drew attention to the scope of Badiane's objectives.

"You're talking about getting industry moving at the same time as you're getting agriculture moving," he noted, "and this is a very ambitious undertaking."

However, Timmer also indicated that he saw the seeds of success in Badiane's ideas. "I think we've just heard a quite profound analysis of Africa's agricultural problems, and its structural history," he said. "And a possible way forward."