Sub-Saharan Africa has huge potential to become a global food basket, but this is far from being realised. The region is estimated to have 60% of the globally available, but neglected, arable land, yet it remains deficient in food.
Even where arable land is cultivated, hurdles such as limited irrigation, small farms, and a lack of fertiliser and modern agro-technology have kept productivity low.
Currently, Africa’s shortfall in agricultural output is met by food imports that are expected to grow from US$35 billion (R460 billion) in 2015 to approximately US$110 billion (R1,4 trillion) in 2025.
Low productivity and increased demand for food, due to a 3% annual population growth rate, requires that food production be increased by 60% over the next 15 years.
India’s ‘Green Revolution’ could be a useful model if adapted to African conditions. Half-a-
century ago, that country too had an underdeveloped agricultural sector. Famine struck in eastern India in 1965 and 1966, compelling the state to look to food aid, and serious food shortages continued into the early 1970s.
The severity of these crises birthed a new approach to agriculture. Known as the Green Revolution, the policy involved improvements in technology combined with state-led initiatives to support farmers.
Less than 10 years later, India was self-sufficient in grains.
Though imperfect, the Green Revolution model offers important lessons for countries in sub-Saharan Africa.
It underscores the importance of government support for agriculture, as well as investment in technology such as irrigation, mechanisation and inputs to improve yield. Sub-Saharan Africa could learn from the Indian experience.
A multi-faceted approach
India began to increase budget allocation to the agricultural sector when it realised that excessive dependence on food imports was simply not viable. In 1961, at the outset of its third Five-Year Plan, the country set about increasing agricultural productivity with limited land.
Interventions focused on modernising the sector by introducing high-yield varieties of seed, making fertilisers and insecticide more widely available, manufacturing farm equipment, upgrading irrigation practices, and providing institutional support to farmers.
Institutional support played a critical role. It included government subsidies for inputs, research and development to produce new varieties of seeds, and providing irrigation facilities.
Access to credit and markets, extending minimum support prices, and good infrastructure were key to the success of the Green Revolution.
Today, India is self-reliant in food grains. It has a shortfall in a few agro-commodities, mainly oilseeds and pulses, which are imported from various sources, including African countries.
In 2015, India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, called for a second Green Revolution. This is set to engage new strategies to revitalise the agricultural sector.
India’s Green Revolution had its limitations, however. Only irrigated areas benefited, while water-scarce drylands lagged behind.
The states of Punjab and Haryana, which were suited to wheat cultivation and had access to irrigation, flourished. The rice-producing areas in the south and east of the country trailed behind.
The Green Revolution also exacerbated the rural divide. Most agriculturists were smallholder subsistence farmers who could not afford expensive inputs and capital investments.
This segment of farmers could not access credit in the same way as large-scale farmers, who were generally landowners from the higher castes. As a result, rich farmers were the main beneficiaries of increased productivity and profits.
Other problems emerged too. The capital-intensive technology led to soil erosion, reduced genetic diversity and soil fertility, rural impoverishment and increased conflict in rural settings. It also displaced small farmers.
Lessons for Africa
African countries could benefit from India’s ‘triple A’ approach: appropriate, adaptable and affordable technology for equipment and irrigation. With some adaptation for local rural conditions, these ‘triple A’ technologies could benefit smallholder farmers who depend heavily on income from agriculture.
Countries on the continent could avoid the Green Revolution’s shortcomings by planning ahead and tackling potential pitfalls from the outset.
This would include managing the high costs of inputs and the negative effects of excessive use of chemical fertilisers.
Political will, and state and institutional intervention, are essential. This is to ensure that those with small farms and meagre incomes can also be part of the Green Revolution.
African governments should ask the following questions:
- Should the agricultural sector be viewed solely as a ‘business sector’?
- What approaches should be adopted for financing smallholder agriculture?
- How can smallholder farmers with limited collateral (or none), access credit to combine agriculture and entrepreneurship, and add value to agricultural products?
One lesson is that governments need to work with the private sector by providing incentives to invest in agriculture and allied industries. This will ensure that small farmers enjoy access to markets, price stability, minimum post-harvest losses, and value-addition to their agricultural products.
Simultaneously, the private sector has to be regulated to ensure that the social agenda and profit-making motives are carefully balanced.
Africa has the benefit of hindsight to learn from India’s Green Revolution. Countries can weigh the pros and cons of technological intervention and adapt them to suit local conditions, attain food sufficiency, and shape the future of food locally and globally.
Rhea D’Silva, an M.Phil. candidate at the Department of Sociology, University of Mumbai, and a research associate at the Centre for African Studies, contributed to this article.
The views expressed in our weekly opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Farmer’s Weekly.
This article was written by Dr Renu Modi, lecturer in African Studies, University of Mumbai.
The article was first published by The Conversation.