Curb Your Enthusiasm

Africa needs its own Green Revolution, not a knockoff of Asia’s.

Tree crops like cocoa could be the basis of an African-style Green Revolution.

Tree crops like cocoa could be the basis of an African-style Green Revolution.

Some development experts claim conditions in Africa are ripe for an Asian-style Green Revolution. Rapid population growth could lead to cheap labor and scarcer land, they say. In theory, under such conditions, adopting labor-intensive technologies and using more fertilizer could boost agricultural output and give Africa its own Green Revolution along the lines of Asia’s. Optimism about this possibility has fueled a rise in input subsidy programs, including investments in fertilizer subsidies.

But Is the Optimism Justified?

To find out, IFPRI Research Fellow Alejandro Nin-Pratt and Linden McBride, an economics PhD candidate at Cornell, looked at densely populated rural areas in Ghana for signs that a fertilizer-and-labor-intensive approach to boosting cereal production was taking hold. Their results, published recently in the article “Agricultural Intensification in Ghana: Evaluating the Optimist’s Case for a Green Revolution” in Food Policy, produced no such evidence. “Assuming Africa is an appropriate setting for another Asian-style Green Revolution,” they write, “is misleading and could result in, yet again, a frustrated attempt to attain sustainable agricultural growth.”

Steep Price for Labor

Their study throws questions on some common assumptions. In resource-rich countries, a growing population does not translate into abundant cheap labor, Nin-Pratt says. As an exporter of cocoa, minerals, and oil, Ghana sees an influx of foreign currency, which is associated with relatively high-priced labor. The combination of high labor costs and small farms in densely populated areas means that farmers have few incentives to innovate. Most households in these areas either add nonfarm income or specialize in cassava, which they can produce with  little or no fertilizer and which uses less labor per unit of output than other crops. Because of the high cost of labor, they may use labor-saving herbicides and mechanization.

Growing What Comes Naturally

More plentiful land and relatively high-priced labor in many African countries mean a Green Revolution in Africa would not resemble the Asian model. Africa’s Green Revolution, Nin-Pratt says, will involve labor-saving technologies and use more land, perhaps through shorter fallow periods or the cultivation of virgin land. What’s more, an African Green Revolution won’t center on cereal production. The best production system for growing cereals makes up just 20 percent of arable land in Africa south of the Sahara. “I cannot envision future development and growth in African agriculture if tree and root crops are not developed,” says Nin-Pratt.

To do this, Africa needs more research to support its tree and root crop production systems. While the Asian Green Revolution drew on more than 100 years of developed-country research on temperate-climate cereal crops, the knowledge base for local African crops is far smaller, says Nin-Pratt. “The path for development in Africa,” he says, “is going to be very different from the one Asian countries followed.”

Photo credit: Reuters

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