Agriculture's Techtonic Shift in Sub-Saharan Africa

Agriculture's Techtonic Shift in Sub-Saharan Africa

. 7 min read

Defined as the percent of people living on less than US$1.90 per day, the global extreme poverty rate is 10 percent. Sub-Saharan Africa’s is 41 percent. But the disproportionate lack of economic growth in sub-Saharan Africa is far from decreasing; it is estimated that 87 percent of the world’s extreme poor will be living in this region by 2030. But what does living in extreme poverty really mean? One of every thirteen children in sub-Saharan Africa will die before their fifth birthday, a rate fifteen times higher than in high-income countries, and one third of African children are moderately to severely underweight.

In this region, the high rates of poverty are concentrated in rural communities. Especially considering that more than half of all people living in Africa depend on agriculture for “all or part of their livelihood,” agriculture and poverty are inextricably linked. In fact, the World Bank found that increasing agricultural productivity is the “critical entry-point in designing effective poverty reduction strategies,” in sub-Saharan Africa and across the globe; historically, agricultural productivity growth has been responsible for “40 to 70 percent of poverty reduction” in some countries.

Implications of Improving Agriculture

Besides the economic benefits of improving agriculture, higher agricultural productivity can result in societal welfare gains as well. Two-thirds of HIV infections are in sub-Saharan Africa, which has just 10 percent of the world’s population, and in 2017, of 219 million malaria cases, “most cases and deaths” occurred in sub-Saharan Africa. A researcher at National Taiwan University actually researched the relationship between poverty and HIV/AIDS and determined that without adequate reduction of poverty, there will be little progress with reducing transmission of the virus.

Moreover, Sub-Saharan Africa’s educational attainment is the lowest in the world; for example, the mean years of schooling in Sudan is 3.7 years. In Niger, that number is two years. UNICEF specifically identified the direct and indirect costs of attending school, such as the cost of books or sacrificed time that could have been spent working, as significant barriers to education in developing countries. More than just these immediate benefits, improvements in agricultural productivity help break the cycle of poverty that perpetuates socioeconomic disadvantage, as better health and education can both substantially reduce poverty.

The Role of Technology

As scientific innovation continues, technology will play a massive role in revolutionizing sub-Saharan agriculture. Specifically, there are two axes along which technology has the most potential: crop productivity and water distribution.

Crop Productivity

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN estimates that between 20 and 40 percent of global crop production is lost to pests each year. That number is even higher in Africa—49 percent, according to the Centre for Agriculture and Bioscience International. However, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) could alleviate this issue. Using gene-editing technology, scientists are now able to incorporate new DNA into a species's genome, artificially increasing the speed of evolution and genetic change. In the context of agriculture, genetic engineering has paved the way for the creation of crops with pest and herbicide resistance as well as even drought tolerance, increasing global agricultural production by about 350 million tons of corn and 180 million tons of soybeans; it even “significantly reduced” agricultural land use due to increased productivity.

In the past, agricultural scientists transferred beneficial genes from other species into their organism of interest, but recently, biotechnological innovation has led to more efficient methods of genome editing. CRISPR-Cas9, which acts as genetic scissors that snip out certain segments of DNA, has become one of the most popular and effective gene-editing tools and has been approved for use on many crops, such as corn and soybeans, by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). In October, Harvard University researcher Dr. David Liu even improved on CRISPR to develop a gene-editing process dubbed “prime editing” which is safer and more effective than conventional CRISPR.

This increasingly safe and effective gene-editing technology could be pivotal in ending extreme poverty and hunger in sub-Saharan Africa. According to the Center of Global Development, GMOs have the potential to bring about a New Green Revolution for Africa, but at the moment are vastly underutilized; only 4 of the 47 countries in the continent allow the planting of genetically modified (GM) crops. The non-profit International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), found that current GM crops have had on average a “positive economic effect” in sub-Saharan Africa. However, this effect’s magnitude and distribution depends on the crop, trait, and how the technology is introduced; it does not function as a cure-all for agricultural limitations. Specifically, using South Africa as a case study, the analysis describes how the incorporation of Bt crops—crops that have been genetically engineered to produce a protein that is toxic to many pests—by subsistence farmers has been beneficial for the majority of adopters. In Uganda, the estimated opportunity cost of non-adoption of GM fungi-resistant bananas is US$38 a year. Considering that the extreme poverty threshold is US$1.90 a day, the banning of GMO use is a massive loss for poverty reduction.

Besides just increasing drought tolerance or pest resistance, genetic engineering has been used to drastically improve crop growth. Earlier this year, the Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency (RIPE) project developed a way to increase the efficiency of photosynthesis that resulted in a 40 percent increase in crop growth. No doubt the implications of this increased photosynthetic efficacy are enormous, and even though the technology will take at least a decade to be commercialized, the RIPE team has already committed to giving royalty-free access to smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa.

While the incorporation of GM crops into the agricultural mainstream is a vital step towards increased agricultural productivity and decreased poverty, there are valid concerns about its practicality in the region. American research group the Brookings Institution describes that the backlash against GMOs involves concerns about the health, safety, and socioeconomic effects of these crops which manifests in low public support for pro-GMO policies, even though the scientific consensus is that GMOs are just as safe as non-GMO foods. Additionally, they emphasize that the potential negative effects on trade with other countries that are more anti-GMO as well as the lack of rigorous biosafety and biotechnology regulatory frameworks in African countries south of the Sahara both play large obstacles towards widespread GM crop adoption. Although gene-editing technology has the potential to revolutionize agricultural production, countries must first address these practical concerns to ensure an effective implementation of GMOs. Kenya is one of these nations that has done so, finally beginning trials on pest-resistant cotton after 17 years of research and government scrutiny.

Water Distribution

Another limiting factor of sub-Saharan African agriculture is that only four percent of the land is irrigated. Furthermore, in parts of west, central, and southern Africa, the FAO identifies drought as the “main source of vulnerability.” The lack of adequate irrigation systems in these areas causes  farmers to be at the whim of increasingly erratic weather, especially as a result of climate change.

A 2013 UN report on African agriculture revealed that current irrigation only harnesses a third of the irrigation potential of Africa’s main rivers, which means that about 31 million hectares of land goes unirrigated. Beyond the classical dam-based irrigation, the IFPRI highlights the potential of an additional 7.3 million hectares of irrigated land via the development of small-scale irrigation technology (SSI)—technology ranging from watering cans to automated water pumps that help with irrigation for subsistence farmers. In fact, the IFPRI recommends improving SSI as compared to large-scale, dam-based irrigation, because it is a more effective use of resources; the estimated profitability of investments in small-scale irrigation are four times the estimated profitability of investments in dam-based irrigation. A research study published in the Water Resources and Economics journal showed that adoption of SSI technologies could increase the net profit of a farm between 154 percent to 608 percent based on data in northern Ghana. However, regarding microeconomic concerns, the lack of capital on the part of farmers leads them to prefer low-cost low-return SSI options over higher-cost but higher-return alternatives. On a macroeconomic scale, the IFPRI estimates that it would require a total of US$38 billion to to irrigate these 7.3 million hectares of potential irrigable land.

Besides irrigation, technology can help farmers tailor crops to weather patterns. International non-profit Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) has created the Platform for Big Data in Agriculture which has used artificial intelligence to predict environmental conditions six months in advance. This type of information would be invaluable to smallholder farmers, who could adjust their crops and planting strategies for what is best suited to those conditions. In fact, artificial intelligence algorithms have already been developed for drought prediction; researchers in Kenya and Austria created an algorithm that predicted drought situations one month in advance.

Demand-side considerations

Though these technological advancements could do much for agricultural growth, they are all supply-side improvements. Increases in crop yields do not always translate into economic growth; without the necessary demand from consumers, these yields would just result in decreased economic efficiency and the lowering of crop prices which means that the increased crop output would not translate into increased profits for the farmers. US management consulting firm McKinsey & Company describes how most agricultural-development plans do not consider the demand-side aspects of agricultural production enough even though it is the markets where this influx of crops will eventually go. Specifically, McKinsey suggests looking towards three main sources of demand: export markets, domestic urban markets, and the food processing industry. Without substantial development into the market and trade infrastructures, increasing crop yields will only do so much.

With disproportionate poverty rates due to agricultural reasons, the necessity of increasing agricultural productivity via GMOs, SSI, and AI in sub-Saharan Africa is clear. However, without improving infrastructure in the region to prepare it for a New Green Revolution, any use of these technologies will fall short. As scientific innovation continues and the sociopolitical landscapes continue changing, technological innovation will no doubt usher in a new era of sub-Saharan African prosperity.

Eric Li

Eric Li is a Staff Writer for the HIR. He is interested in technology, international development, and policy. He has previously written about edtech and agtech in sub-Saharan Africa.