African Agricultural Productivity Growth and R&D in a Global Setting

This paper was prepared for Stanford University’s Global Food Policy and Food Security Symposium Series, hosted by the Center on Food Security and the Environment, and supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Relative to other regions of the world, most African economies are still heavily reliant on agriculture as a source of income and employment. And with more than 70 percent of the continent’s poor residing in rural areas, the production and productivity performance of African agriculture is pivotal to overall economic growth and the well-being of the poorest people in the region. After a dismal decade of output growth in the 1970s, the rate of aggregate agricultural output growth picked up for each of the subsequent three decades, and averaged 2.83 percent per year during the 2000s. With population growing at still record rates by world standards, per capita output grew much more slowly, just 0.36 percent per year during the past decade. 

The productivity evidence is mixed and difficult to summarize. The rate of African crop yield growth (at least for the four crops given closer attention in this paper: corn, wheat, rice and soybean) is generally slower than elsewhere in the world, and in keeping with patterns seen elsewhere there has been a slowdown in the pace of average crop yield growth in Africa since around 1990. African land and labor productivity levels also generally lag those found elsewhere in the world, although aggregate land productivity in Africa outperformed that of Australia and New Zealand, another region of the world with challenging agricultural soils and heavy reliance on erratic (and often agriculturally marginal) weather. The reported rates of growth in multi-factor productivity (MFP) for African agriculture are also low by world standards, but the body of available evidence suggests that African MFP growth rates picked up in recent years. Unfortunately, the lack of reliable data and differences in the analytical details between the available studies makes it hard to reconcile the evidence and reach robust conclusions about MFP performance throughout sub-Saharan Africa.

Productivity levels and growth rates are affected by a host of factors, not least the technologies linking inputs to outputs and, by implication, the amount, nature and effectiveness of the innovative effort that develops and deploys these technologies. Although overall investments in African public agricultural research and development (R&D) have increased during the past decade or so, the growth in spending is not especially widespread and dominated by growth in just a few countries. Nigeria and Ethiopia account for half the region’s increase in agricultural R&D spending from 2000-2005—the latest year for which data are presently available. The intensity of public investment (i.e., agricultural R&D spending relative to the value of agricultural output) has increased as well. However, during the 2000-2005 period Africa spent just $0.54 on public research for every $100 of agricultural output, almost half the corresponding rest-of-world intensity ($1.05) and one-fifth of the rich country average ($2.70). Fragmented and typically small research agencies, and unstable funding streams still bedevil African agricultural research endeavors and undermine efficiencies in agricultural research that are intrinsically long-term in nature. Turning around these research realties in a meaningful and sustained fashion will be critical to realizing the long-term growth in African agriculture productivity that will be required to grow that sector in particular and the region’s economies more generally.