Agricultural Productivity in Africa Discussion

Agriculture continues to be an important part of the African economy. Agriculture remains a vital sector for most African countries, despite the fact that its economic impact differs widely across the continent. According to reports, agricultural output accounts for around 15% of the continent's GDP (Chauvin, Mulangu and Porto, 2012). According to Moyo, Bah, and Verdier-Chouchane (2015), the sector contributes about 70% of Liberia's GDP, indicating that some countries are overly reliant on it. Agriculturalists in Africa, however, follow a diverse range of livestock and crop production that differs within and across agroecological regions. It is the major source of income for a significant population in the rural areas, estimated at 64% of the total population. Besides, agricultural productivity in Africa is characterized by small scale production. About 70% of farmers cultivate low yield traditional food crops on limited plots of land using minimal agricultural inputs (Moyo, Bah, & Verdier-Chouchane, 2015). Moreover, the farms depend on rain water, hence subjected to the vagaries of weather.

In spite of the significance of agricultural production in Africa, it remains dismal, consequently undermining food security as well as the overall productivity. There is no doubt that the sector substantially lags behind other developing regions in the world. Time and again, various parts of the continent has been hard hit by hunger indicating that Africa is yet to benefit from the green revolution. Unfortunately, despite its massive natural resources that include a vast region of arable land, Africa records the most prevalence of malnourishment in the world. This paper describes the state of Africa’s agricultural productivity, discusses the impediments faced by the sector and provides insights of how agricultural production can be improved.

State of Agricultural Productivity in Africa

It is only fair to acknowledge that the current state of agricultural production in Africa is not the same as two decades ago. Agricultural production has certainly increased steadily. However, little progress has been made with regard to production factors of labor and land. Production has largely been achieved through the mobilization of the extensive agricultural labor force which has produced little improvements in yields. Compared to Asia, the cereals are less than half to what is produced in Africa. With a population almost doubling and tripling in urban areas, it only means there are more mouths to feed compared to what is produced.

Figure 1: Projected agricultural production.

Crop and Livestock Production

In Africa, diversity with regard to the farming systems is considered a norm. Even at individual farm units, African farmers typically cultivate more than three diverse crops in varying topographical position, soil type and land size (Njeru, 2013). Even so, the farming system in Sub-Saharan Africa encompasses many root crops with a notable example of cassava. Cereals are not given much consideration since the main course crops are coarse grains such as sorghum, millet, and maize. It is even estimated that the demand for these commodities will upsurge in the region by about 4.9 percent between 1997 and 2020 (Moyo, Bah, & Verdier-Chouchane, 2015). Between this period, wheat and rice are projected to record the highest increase. The major cause of this increase is triggered by higher demand for livestock feeds. Equally the same, the demand for tuber and root yields has already increased. These production systems provide insights of the dynamic systems that are constantly evolving. The figure below shows the factors affecting yield and food availability with the representation of technical constraints.

Figure 2: Factors affecting yield and availability of food.

Livestock production is equally an essential measure of agricultural production systems in Africa. It is particularly indispensable to the less fortunate, a majority of whom derive a substantial amount of their insufficient income from livestock compared to the wealthy. The animal production system in Africa can be categorized according to major features and agro-ecological zoning. They can be further differentiated into West, Eastern, Central and Southern Africa. While these areas practice mixed crop-livestock systems, the rearing of cattle is considered to be of great importance to the poor. Livestock such as horses, goats, sheep, poultry, pigs, camels, and donkeys are as well kept by a considerable population common in humid, semi-arid and tropical uplands of Central, Eastern and South of Africa (Chauvin, Mulangu and Porto, 2012). In West Africa, goats and sheep rank the top, trailed by cattle and poultry while donkeys, pigs, and horses come last. Low-income earners in the pastoral range-based systems largely regard goats and sheep to be of high relevance.

There is three mixed rain fed crop and livestock systems in Africa that represent more than seventy percent of the estimated 280 million people living below the poverty line (Mensah et al., 2016). One of them is the pastoral range-based systems that sustain about 10%. North Africa has a mixed irrigated arid as well as semi-arid crop and livestock system. Mensah et al. (2016) notes that it consists of about 44% of the overall northern region. Nonetheless, demand for food crops, milk and meat are anticipated to double in years to come. The main aspects triggering the rise in demand are increased urbanization, population growth, and higher incomes. For instance, the Sub-Saharan Africa is expected to record the highest demand in meat consumption and the second greatest growth in the consumption of milk than other regions in the continent (Demeke, 2013). By far, they exceed the growth projections in demand for food grains.

For the reason that livestock production is a significant livelihood asset, improved productivity has the prospective to provide an opportunity for Africans to realize a lop-sided portion of the benefits from this demand progression. However, for livestock productivity to meet the demand, it is vital that the output per animal and reduction of wastage be enhanced. A considerable body of literature notes that agriculture-based growth has a significant influence on the reduction of poverty (Stevens, 2003). The sector is key to realizing inclusive growth for the reason that it mainly consists of small scale farmers.

Farming System

Africa’s farming systems are characterized based on their diversity. None of the farming systems predominate since the combination of the system provides about eighty percent of the overall food production. Even though many systems attract mechanical opportunities, they require investment preferment and suitable strategies at both micro and macro level. The map below shows Africa’s main farming system and the geographical setting.

Map 1: Main agricultural production systems in Africa.

Weather and Climate

The potential of agricultural production of harvests in Africa is relatively high as a result of high temperature and solar radiation. Scientific evidence of global warming has revealed that the average temperatures are bound to escalate over the next half century (Stevens, 2003). A continued upsurge in ambient temperatures will cause significant variations in migration patterns, rangeland and forest cover as well as biome distribution. In particular, Africa is very vulnerable to the effects of climatic changes due to rampant poverty, over-reliance on rain-fed agriculture and inequitable land distribution. It is predicted that Africa’s future is likely to be plagued by severe extreme weather events that include flooding and localized drought, mostly in the tropics. While some droughts episodes in Southeast Africa may be concomitant with El Nino- Southern Oscillation occurrences, some regions including Eastern Africa is already experiencing changes in weather conditions and patterns (Maponya and Mpandeli, 2012).

The production of the coastal regions is reliant on oceanic processes such as the condition of mangrove forestry, coral ridges, sea grass beds, upwelling and the quality plus volume of runoff from the rivers. Even so, Western Sub-Saharan Africa has some of the significant outpouring ecosystems worldwide. Temperature increase is bound to cause the rise in sea levels along with frequent incidences of extreme weather conditions like violent storms and droughts which causes changes in agricultural practices (Pachpute, 2010). Of note are the coastal zones of West African nations such as Senegal and Gabon which are already under stress from population pressure.

Furthermore, Maponya and Mpandeli (2012) notes that climatic change has predominantly exacerbated soil degradation in the arid and semi-arid areas where pastoral and agropastoral systems are practiced. The result is severe ecological consequences that have led to a drop of the underground water table, increased evapotranspiration, increased soil erosion and eradication of bushes. Therefore, the variability of rainfall may be the determining factor of the status of the range-lands along with its soils. It is understood that considerable effort has been made to improve the agricultural productivity in Africa, yet slow productivity growth in the sector has characterized the progress all through. There is certainly need to consider the main reasons that impede significant growth concerning agricultural productivity in the region.

Impediments of Agricultural Productivity

About ecological aspects, the continent’s soil varies from region to another. While there are different forms, their fertility is considerably lower than the Asian volcanic soils as well as alluvial valleys. A significant area, particularly northern Africa has an extensive huge expanse of arid and semi-arid areas, which makes it difficult for a sustainable agricultural production. The weather has become unpredictable, and shocks such as droughts have become frequent in many parts with Eastern Africa as a recent example. Also, most of Africa’s agricultural production is reliant on rain-fed production meaning the dramatic variation in rainfall significantly impacts on the yields produced. The irrigated expanse of the crop land in Africa is considerably lower than other parts of the world. Only 4% of the crop land is irrigated in Sub-Saharan Africa, which represents only a fraction of what Asian countries have invested in irrigation (Moyo, Bah, & Verdier-Chouchane, 2015). These ecological factors are an impediment to Africa’s agricultural production and have substantially contributed to the stagnation of agricultural productivity in the region. The figure below shows yield production based on the ecological conditions as well as under actual field conditions. It is evident that the ecological factors can be an impediment towards realizing the utmost potential yields as shown below.

Figure 3: Yields examined based on ecological production standards and actual field conditions.

In Africa, research efforts on high-yield crops did not focus on the traditional and staple food crops and agroecological systems (Moyo, Bah, & Verdier-Chouchane, 2015). Whereas agricultural productivity in other parts of the world such as Asia rely on extensive use of irrigation, expanded chemical use and improved crop varieties, the implementation of a similar approach has proved futile in Africa. The World Bank notes that the heterogeneity of crop production and ecological conditions means technology does not always directly improve the productivity of the continent (Chauvin, Mulangu and Porto, 2012). Put differently, Africa’s agricultural revolution needs a tailored strategy that is carefully contextualized to fit the specifics of the region’s agricultural conditions. Thus, an approach that aims to increase the productivity of tree and root crop production systems as well as enhance labor for cereal production could be the way out. Also, improved crop varieties and livestock breeds could be taken into account to improve productivity.

Governments play a significant role in the improvement of agricultural productivity of their respective countries and the entire region at large. However, there are inadequate agricultural policies in Africa which distort agricultural sector. As a consequence, the adoption of technology in the sector is constrained. Direct and indirect taxes have prevented farmers from accessing modern agricultural inputs such as fertilizers. Moreover, the establishment of marketing boards which purchase crops and livestock produce from farmers and sell them locally and internationally at prevailing market prices discourages productivity. While the scheme sought to control prices and ensure the stability of income to the farmers, it acts as a disincentive to the farmers to invest in intermediate inputs such as fertilizers.

The failure of market plus the ineffectiveness of the policies also brings about a decreased adoption of the agricultural inputs such as agrochemicals and equipment by farmers. Research reveals that the use of fertilizers among other farm inputs is still low in many countries (Moyo, Bah, & Verdier-Chouchane, 2015). Besides, farmers are discouraged by various institutional and market factors in using fertilizers for production. Additionally, underdevelopment of markets, high transportation costs, and high prices have limited the access of agricultural inputs in most African countries. For instance, poor infrastructure has been attributed to account for the low agricultural productivity in the Eastern African countries.

Despite clear effects of low agricultural productivity such as drought and hunger, African governments and donors have continually neglected the sector. According to Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), most African governments reduced their budget allocation on agriculture by an average of 3.5% from 2001 to 2012 (Moyo, Bah, & Verdier-Chouchane, 2015). Most governments failed to obey the 2003 declaration of ensuring an allocation of at least 10% to the sector. As expected, there has been limited research on biotechnology and agricultural sector in general because of the limited funding. Overall, this impediment narrows down to poor governance of the African countries. While the governments have undoubtedly failed on their part, economic institutions, especially in insurance and financial sectors have hindered the ability of the African farmers to develop. To date, the overall financial inclusion of Africans is worse in the agricultural sector. Production cycles require high initial investments, then follows a prolonged period of no cash inflow because of the growing season and a high cash windfall following the harvest. A lot of products offered by the financial institutions do not favor the small scale farmers since the loan repayment schedule does not coincide with the production cycles. Equally the same, most African countries lack tailored insurance products that encourage improved productivity. Adverse challenges such as droughts often lead to food shortage since farmers are not prepared to respond to the shocks.

Conclusion and Recommendation

The demand for food is rapidly growing not just in Africa but worldwide as a result of population upsurge. Agriculture is expected to play a significant role in feeding the swelling population which is anticipated to hit 9.6 billion by 2050 (Mensah et al., 2016). Even so, it is anticipated to remain a significant source of income for many Africans since it represents a substantial portion of economic output for most countries. In Africa, the sector encompasses mainly small-scale farming where few livestock are reared and diverse crop varieties of low yields cultivated in small plots. Primarily, these crops include root crops such as cassava, yams and sweet potatoes. Other food crops include maize, sorghum, millet, rice although some countries produce cash crops such as tea, cocoa, coffee, and sugar. The fact that cultivated land is non-irrigated and agricultural inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides are used sparingly makes the sector fairly productive leading to food insecurity and large imports of staple foods. However, there are various impediments of agricultural productivity in the continent such as reliance on rain-fed agriculture, market failures, inefficient policies and institution factors and inefficient research on suitable crop varieties and livestock breeds that fit the ecological conditions. Very little is done by the African governments to revolutionize the sector leading to stagnation of productivity despite the escalating demand.

However, several strategies ought to be implemented to change the current situation. It is essential to address the ecological factors by taking into account specifics of the African climate conditions, soil type and appropriate crop varieties and livestock breed. This will entail extensive research to develop and promote high-yield crops and animal breeds suitable for every corner of the continent. National governments should devote to commit 10% of their budgets to the agricultural sector. As a result, better water management will be supported to promote irrigation and reduce reliance on rain-fed agriculture. Besides, there is a need for the African governments to establish effective policies and institutional framework to abate the distortions and take advantage of new technological opportunities. Land reforms along with the development of financial instruments should be tailored to agricultural production cycle to enhance technology adoption as well as increase the usage of intermediate inputs. Although there is production knowledge, market and geographic information already used in Africa, there is a need for further enhancement and adoption of ICT innovations in production cycles. Moreover, there is a need for biotechnology skills to enhance large-scale implementation of farming systems across the continent. This way, the continent will surely meet the demand for agricultural produce and realize the benefits it comes with altogether.


Chauvin, N., Mulangu, F. and Porto, G. (2012). Food Production and Consumption Trends in Sub-Saharan Africa: Prospects for the Transformation of the Agricultural Sector. Regional Bureau for Africa. United Nations Development Programme.

Demeke, M. (2013). Understanding the performance of food production in sub-Saharan Africa and its implications for food security. Journal of Development and Agricultural Economics, 5(11), pp.425-443.

Maponya, P. and Mpandeli, S. (2012). Climate Change and Agricultural Production in South Africa: Impacts and Adaptation Options. Journal of Agricultural Science, 4(10).

Mensah, E., Almas, L., Guerrero, B., Lust, D. and Ibrahimov, M. (2016). Agriculture and the State of Food Insecurity in Western Africa.

Moyo, J. M., Bah, E. H. M., & Verdier-Chouchane, A. (2015). Transforming Africa’s agriculture to improve competitiveness. The Africa competitiveness report 2015, 37.

Njeru, E. (2013). Crop Diversification: A Potential Strategy To Mitigate Food Insecurity by Smallholders in sub-Saharan Africa. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development, pp.1-7.

Pachpute, J. (2010). A package of water management practices for sustainable growth and improved production of the vegetable crop in labor and water scarce Sub-Saharan Africa. Agricultural Water Management, 97(9), pp.1251-1258.

Stevens, C. (2003). Food Trade and Food Policy in Sub-Saharan Africa: Old Myths and New Challenges.Development Policy Review, 21(5-6), pp.669-681.

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