Closing Africa’s agricultural yield gap

11-08-2014
As the White House welcomes leaders from MORE than 50 African states to Washington D.C. for the US-Africa Leaders Summit, the United States can offer the region guidance in a range of sectors. But few gaps between Africa’s performance and that of the US are as dramatic as the disparity between the two countries’ agricultural yield.

It is estimated that farmers in the US grow five times as much corn per acre as smallholder farmers in Africa, for instance. This gap will only widen as the effects of climate change increase. Average temperatures in sub-Saharan Africa are projected to increase by between 1.5 and 3.1°C by 2050.

For the millions of African farmers who rely on free ranging livestock and rain-fed crops to feed their families and generate income, this is bad news. That is, unless the science and technology that have lifted the agricultural sectors of developed nations such as the US to highly productive ones are made available to those who need them most.

The African Union-led Africa Climate-Smart Agriculture Alliance, which seeks to bring climate-smart technologies to 25 million farmers in sub-Saharan Africa by 2025, is on the hunt for technologies that will make a self-sufficient Africa a reality.

Research launched this year by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) has taken the guesswork out of what these technologies are. An online model examined the effect that 11 technologies could have on various countries’ crop yields. In many cases, yields doubled or even quadrupled.

For example, according to the IFPRI model, no-till maize cultivation could increase yields by 15 percent while reducing required harvested area by 7.2 percent across Africa. No-till practices could reduce the population at risk of hunger by 10.2 percent across the region. Better control of weeds, disease and insects through crop protection could boost this by another 7.9 percent. This would remove nearly 100 million people in Africa from hunger risk.

The road ahead seems straightforward. Yet if the technologies have been identified, what is holding African agriculture back?

One of the greatest obstacles is that the continuous droughts and floods caused by climate change have gradually eroded the resilience of food systems and farming livelihoods. Smallholder farmers’ tools, soils and infrastructure have taken a hit. With such a limited margin for error, would farmers risk the meagre livelihoods they have for a technology they have never seen work?

Our research shows that these high potential agricultural technologies will never be adopted at scale unless farmers’ risk in investing in them is reduced.

This means that Africa does not just need breakthrough technologies. Spurring the agriculture sector will also require breakthrough services that will make these technologies a viable option for smallholder farmers. That means implementing financing and risk management mechanisms such as weather based index insurance, which seeks to limit the impact of weather shocks on farmers’ income streams. If farmers have access to these kinds of services, they will be more willing to explore adopting new practices that could drastically increase their productivity - and the resilience of their income streams.

This is where the private sector can play a crucial role, by partnering with national agencies and local organisations to bring these products to farmers. This will require a conducive policy environment that allows all parties to gain from these ventures.

Meeting the needs of growing populations in an increasingly climate-stressed world demands that we harness the power of science and technology to transform agriculture around the world. Our efforts must begin by strengthening investments in breakthrough technologies, such as climate resilient technologies, as well as in breakthrough services, such as climate-based agricultural insurance.

If the right technologies are prioritised, and the risk in adopting them sufficiently mitigated, there are big gains to be made. However, it is only by investing in both the technology and the services infrastructure that will support their adoption that impact at scale can be achieved. The solutions are known. There can be no more excuses for Africa’s agriculture yield gap.

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