Africa’s Agricultural Transformation and the Role of African Higher Education

Africa’s Agricultural Transformation and the Role of African Higher Education

In the 1980s, most Africans lived in rural areas that were socially and economically isolated from the rest of the world, had no more than primary school educations, and were mostly engaged in semi-subsistence farming. Poverty and malnutrition were rampant and life expectancy was under 50.

Africa’s conditions have changed rapidly.  Today, 48% of Africans have a secondary school education, and 10% of college-aged Africans are attending universities.  The share of people in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) living on less than USD1.90 a day declined from 58% in 2000 to 41% in 2015.  Most Africans are now engaged in off-farm employment that provides considerably higher living standards than farming. Girls have experienced remarkable improvements in primary and secondary education. Nutritional indicators also show gradual improvement. Of all regions, SSA gained the most in average life expectancy, which is now 64 years.

Agriculture and agrifood systems are powering Africa’s transformation

Since 2000, SSA has doubled its rate of agricultural growth and has the highest rate of agricultural growth of any region.  When agriculture grows, its extensive forward and backward linkages with the rest of the economy expand employment and income growth more broadly.  Thanks to agricultural growth, employment in agrifood systems and non-farm sectors of the economy are growing rapidly.

However, 70% of that growth comes from the expansion of area under cropland, and only 30% from yield improvements.  Sustainable forms of agricultural transformation will need to be increasingly driven by productivity improvements on existing farmland instead of area expansion.  Most smallholder households’ farms have been gradually shrinking in size for decades due to rural population growth and limited potential for continued area expansion in relatively densely populated areas.  Sixty-three percent of the region’s rural population is concentrated in 10% of its land area.  Hence, although most of SSA might be considered “land abundant” and sparsely populated, a relatively large proportion of rural Africans face land scarcity. Focusing on raising the value of output per hectare will conserve valuable natural resources, biodiversity, and make it feasible for African farmers to sustain the economic transformation process.

Strategies to achieve a productivity-led approach to agricultural growth

Achieving these gains in practice will require improved management on smallholder farms – more efficient utilization of fertilizers, and increasing the supply and recycling of organic inputs grown in situ.  This will require greater bi-directional extension systems to enable farmers and agricultural scientists to learn from each other and identify how farmers can adapt improved management practices to fit within their resource constraints.  But without agricultural research, extension systems have little to extend.  Ultimately, improved productivity on existing smallholder plots will require actions of many types, including a favorable policy environment to attract private investment in agrifood systems, secure land tenure systems to provide the incentives for African farmers to make productivity-enhancing investments on their land, and major increases in public investment and upgrading of adaptive local agricultural research and development (R&D) systems. Investment in agricultural R&D is one of the most effective ways to promote agricultural productivity growth.

Most African governments devote less than 10% of their expenditures on agriculture to R&D, and African governments spend much less on agricultural R&D than governments in other regions. No wonder cereal yields have risen fourfold over the past 30 years in South and Southeast Asia, tripled in Latin America, but only doubled in Africa. Strong and longstanding evidence points to very high payoffs to agricultural productivity growth from investment in agricultural R&D.  Africa needs  trained scientists and analysts to fill the positions in the public and private sector to accelerate agricultural productivity growth and economic transformation.

The role of African Higher Education

Agricultural higher education institutions will be called upon to play a transformative role in promoting Africa’s economic transformation in general, and agricultural development in particular.  African universities contribute by far the greatest numbers of undergraduate and masters-level workers in the labour force. The workers graduating from African universities then influence the quality of the rest of their countries’ workforce through the training that they provide to others. This is carried out in primary and secondary schools, agricultural training colleges, technical and vocational education training schools, public sector jobs, civil society and the private sector. Returns on investment from African higher education are estimated at 21%—the highest in the world. A one-year increase in average tertiary education levels is estimated to raise annual GDP growth in Africa by 0.39 percentage points, and eventually yield an increase of up to 12% in GDP. Universities also play an important role in creating knowledge-based goods and services that have a potentially transformational impact. For example, the activities of universities may have important effects on government policy and the practices of private sector firms. They also create a more informed citizenry and contributing to the democratic process.

Through their diffuse effects on workforce quality, higher education institutions exert a profound effect on the pace of a country’s development. A systemic approach is needed to address this issue, recognizing the role of African education systems, and African universities in particular, in driving the region’s agricultural transformation.

Prof T. S. Jayne is University Foundation Professor, Michigan State University (MSU), USA, Prof Adesoji Adelaja is John A. Hannah Distinguished Professor in Land Policy, Michigan State University and Global Fellow, Woodrow Wilson Center, Prof Richard Mkandawire is Chair, Malawi National Planning Commission, and Africa Director, Alliance for African Partnership at MSU.

Acknowledgements:  This article builds on research co-funded by the CGIAR Research Program on Policies, Institutions, and Markets (PIM).  Sections of this article draw upon material in Jayne, T. S., Adesoji Adelaja, and Richard Mkandawire. 2020. Africa’s Rapid Economic TransformationRural 21, 52 (2), June 2020.

This opinion piece is published as part of a joint campaign for World Food Day led by the ARUA-UKRI GCRF Food Systems Research Network for Africa (FSNet-Africa) in partnership with the Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN), the University of Leeds’ Global Food and Environment Institute (GFEI) and the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) AFRICAP Project. 

Published by Elizabeth Mkandawire