Natural Resources Institute, University of Greenwich (ZAF0047)


A.    How important is agriculture to Sub-Saharan Africa’s economic development?


  1. Agriculture underpins food security in Sub-Saharan Africa and is the largest employer, particularly among the poor. Crucially, agricultural enterprise also offers one of the few pathways to dynamic and self-sustaining economic growth. In regions where economies have matured, such as South East Asia, the transition was based on a starting point of very small farms and rapidly growing cities. Evidence suggests that the process and pace of moving from small to larger farm size, allied to improved land tenure, agricultural intensification, mechanisation and market access is accelerating. For the foreseeable future, farmers using traditional practices on land holdings of less than 2ha will be the norm across Sub-Saharan Africa, but this group will find themselves increasingly marginalised and vulnerable as they struggle to maintain cost efficiency and face existential challenges such as climate change. Sub-Saharan Africa has yet to reap the expected benefits of improved regional and global market integration; opportunities for trade and the exploitation of comparative advantage are strongest in the agricultural sector for most countries and represent the ‘low-hanging fruit’ of future economic development.


  1. It is important to consider the impact of investment in agriculture beyond economic development.  Investment in agriculture contributes directly to food and nutrition security, in addition to the indirect contribution though economic growth. It could be argued that without appropriate changes in behaviours of communities, improved economic growth is not sufficient to ensure food and nutrition security and to avoid increases in diet related health issues – and additional burdens on fragile health systems. This highlights the need for a greater focus on improving food systems (including agriculture) to meet the multiple needs of actors in low and middle income countries, including resilient livelihoods, food and nutrition security, incomes, jobs and diet-related health issues. The resilience of agriculture and food systems is especially important in the light of major drivers in sub-Saharan Africa such as climate change and issues associated with state fragility, e.g. post-conflict recovery.



B.     What can be done to support and improve the productivity of the agricultural sector in the region?


  1. Food producers in sub-Saharan Africa are predominantly small-scale farmers and most of them live in rainfed environments. A recent FAO survey has shown that both the average labour productivity and incomes of small-scale farmers are systematically lower than those for larger scale farmers. The significance of this disparity is acknowledged in SDG target 2.3 which is to ‘Double the agricultural productivity and incomes of small-scale food producers.’ The low productivity of small-scale farmers has multiple causes. They operate in challenging environments and their reliance on adequate rainfall makes them highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change and climate variability. These farmers usually have limited access to inputs, which may be unavailable or unaffordable. In many cases they are unable to secure loans needed to buy inputs as they lack sufficient assets to provide as security. Often, they lack up-to-date information on good agricultural practices. They are not well linked to markets and the prices they obtain for their produce are low, providing limited incentives to increase production. 


  1. As the underlying causes of low agricultural productivity in sub-Saharan Africa are many and complex, the responses to address the issue need to be made at various levels. More investment is required as few countries are meeting the target specified in the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) and the Malabo Declaration, of allocating at least 10 percent of public expenditures to the agricultural sector. This includes investment in rural infrastructure, such as improved roads and irrigation facilities, as part of broader rural development policies designed to generate wider employment opportunities and integrate rural areas more effectively into national economic development processes. Funding for agricultural research remains very low and the type of research carried out needs to be more demand-led and inter-disciplinary in order to achieve greater impact. Further research is needed to develop yield-enhancing technologies such as drought-tolerant staple crops and varieties with resistance to pests and diseases. But research should be oriented towards developing more sustainable production systems that maintain soil fertility, conserve water more efficiently, reduce pollution and enhance ecosystem services such as pollination and natural pest regulation. This requires a change in the mindset of policy makers which tend to place an over-reliance on a top-down technology generation approach.


  1. Agricultural policies need to better reflect the needs of different geographical environments, taking more account of factors such as climate, topography, soil type and distance to markets. They should also recognise the special requirements of different groups of people. Women, who make up a large proportion of the agricultural work force, on average have significantly lower productivity than men with similar-sized plots. They perform more tasks than men in the household, have less access to inputs and information and are often allocated poorer land. The average age of farmers is increasing, and young people are not attracted to farming, preferring to seek better employment opportunities in urban areas. Measures that have the potential to enhance productivity and at the same time engage young people in agriculture and address some of the challenges faced by women, include mechanisation of production and post-harvest processes, and digitalisation of agriculture. Digital tools have the capacity to target scarce inputs more precisely and communicate information in a timely manner to large numbers of people. This implies that educational systems need to adapt to equip agriculturalists with the skills that will allow them to support farmers more effectively in the future.


  1. Fish is an important source of animal protein in sub-Saharan Africa.  In West Africa and in the riparian countries of the Great Lakes, it is the main source of animal protein, particularly for the poorer segments of society.  The most common product by volume, Small Pelagic Fish, is not only low-cost, low price, but also, nutritionally, a super food.  Most fish in sub-Saharan Africa is caught, rather than farmed, the exception being Nigeria.  While over-exploitation remains a challenge, there is great potential to improve livelihoods by reducing post-harvest and associated nutritional losses (PHL).  Thus, support to management (managing access and levels of exploitation) and efficiency (reducing PHL) and maximising nutritional contribution) would have a positive impact.  Support could include funding of research and capacity building to advise policy formulation and investment, and provision of investment funding to support better commercial practice.  Management and reduction of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing is also critical to the health of this sector.  There are a number of examples of effective partnerships (e.g. Fish-i Africa - and Stop Illegal Fishing - that have made an impact, which rely on external funding.   Previous projects, such as The Partnership for African Fisheries Governance and Trade and existing projects such as the CGIAR Research Project, 'FISH' have demonstrated the value of supporting the establishment and operation of regional and continental partnerships.


  1. Aquaculture also has great potential for expansion in Africa and has experienced sustained double-digit growth, albeit from a low base.  Nigeria, Ghana, Zambia and Kenya are among the leading producers of farmed fish in sub-Saharan Africa.  The three main areas of support needed here are access to finance, R&D and governance.


  1. Livestock accounts for about a third of value-added in African agriculture, a share that is expected to rise. Livestock are a vital resource for millions of poor African households, providing milk and meat for household consumption – a vital source of protein and micronutrients, cash for immediate household needs, manure for soil fertility and in many areas, farm power and transport. In many African countries livestock and livestock products are also a major export commodity, with markets as varied as Europe (Botswana, Namibia and Eswatini), the Gulf States (Sudan and Ethiopia) and the cities of coastal West Africa (the Sahel countries). Constraints to improving livestock productivity notably include animal diseases, which have both direct and indirect impacts. The presence of trypanosomiasis, transmitted by tsetse flies, prevents or severely constrains production of cattle, sheep and goats across vast areas of Central and coastal West Africa. The inability of African countries to demonstrably control animal diseases across their territories, especially Foot and Mouth, will make export of meat to Europe from all but a handful of African countries impossible for the foreseeable future, short of major changes (which are possible in principle) in the global regulation of trade in animal products. Markets for East African meat in the Gulf States are subject to occasional bans for non-transparent health reasons. Livestock marketing is subject to other constraints such as lack of the infrastructure necessary to get either live animals or highly perishable livestock products to market. For pastoralists in the more arid areas of the continent, inappropriate policies that constrain movement of herds and undermine traditional communal management of rangelands, also undermine the potential contribution to national food production and exports. Generally there is a tendency for livestock production to be underrepresented in research and extension relative to crop production, which will exacerbate the complex and unpredictable impacts of climate change on livestock production.






C.    Are there countries or regions in Sub-Saharan Africa which have successfully improved land use and agricultural productivity? What has worked and why?


  1. There are examples of smallholder farmers producing staple tropical root crops such as cassava and sweetpotato, who have increased their productivity and incomes and contributed to food security, improved nutrition and economic growth.


  1.                     Cassava production, processing and marketing provides a major source of food and income for over 450 million people in sub-Saharan Africa, particularly women and the poorest. However, smallholder farmers’ yields and incomes are limited by poor quality planting materials, limited knowledge of improved farming, processing and value addition practices, lack of awareness of new products and market opportunities. The project Cassava Adding Value for Africa (CAVA2) led by the Natural Resources Institute of the University of Greenwich and the Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta, Nigeria facilitated the development and expansion of cassava value chains in five African countries - Nigeria, Ghana, Tanzania, Uganda and Malawi, increasing productivity by promoting the uptake of new planting materials and improved agronomic practices, developing and supporting installation of more energy-efficient processing technologies, developing business models for new product options, promoting market opportunities and consumer awareness. The project facilitated the formation of 1,270 community processing groups and collaborated with 569 small and medium scale enterprises. Farmers’ groups were linked to processing enterprises and larger factories which provided a reliable source of demand for their cassava roots.


  1.                     The project directly benefited 153,738 value chain actors, especially smallholder farmers and processors (43% women). Smallholders increased their yields by between 58% and 154%. and were enabled to access new markets for high quality cassava flour, starch, ethanol, improved traditional products and animal feed including aquaculture etc. About 2.4 million tons of fresh cassava roots were mobilised into these value chains, of which 70% went into the new value chains. Gross income to smallholder farmers and processors increased by a total of USD369.1 million which contributed to increased investment in enterprise, household and farming assets and improved livelihoods, by both male and female headed households. In Nigeria, there was a 67% increase in the income of the average smallholder farmer that adopted these technologies compared to someone who did not.


  1.                     Important elements in success were:


  1.                     Production and consumption of orange flesh sweet potato (OFSP) has had a positive impact on nutrition. In many developing countries, Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) is a leading cause of blindness and limits growth, weakens immunity, and increases mortality. It afflicts over 140 million preschool children in 118 countries and is the leading cause of child blindness in developing countries. Sweet potato is important for the food security of over 100 million people in Africa. However, the flesh of local varieties of sweet potato was white or pale in colour and contained low levels of provitamin A. Orange sweet potato varieties that are rich in provitamin A were first introduced into Africa in the 1990s by the International Potato Centre (CIP) to reduce the prevalence of vitamin A deficiency and improve health. However, little was known about whether consumers in Africa would accept a new sweet potato that was orange in colour, how to market the new variety and how best to grow it in dry and arid areas. 


  1.                     HarvestPlus with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates project initiated a proof of concept project (Reaching End Users (REU) with Orange Fleshed Sweetpotato) in Uganda and Mozambique to demonstrate that adoption of the crop could reduce vitamin A deficiency. Project implementation was carried out by NGOs responsible for dissemination of OFSP in target communities. In Uganda these were VEDCO and FADEP supported by four Ugandan specialists based at ASARECA, and in Mozambique, World Vision and Helen Keller International took on this role. An Operations Research group planned dissemination strategies, worked closely with the NGOs to modify specific implementation activities, and undertook background research during implementation in both countries: CIP was responsible for vine systems and farm extension related to production of OFSP; HarvestPlus was responsible for demand creation and provision of nutritional information; and the Natural Resources Institute, University of Greenwich was responsible for marketing and product development.


  1.                     Over 24,000 households were reached by the REU project in the period 2007-2009 to see if more vitamin A could indeed be provided through a food crop. This was the first time that a biofortified crop, notably with a different colour, had been released on such a large scale. The project resulted in the following:
  1. Seventy-seven percent of project households in Mozambique adopted OFSP (compared with 9 percent in the control group), and 65 percent of project households in Uganda adopted OFSP (compared with 4 percent in the control group).
  2. The share of sweet potato cultivated area devoted to OFSP increased from 9 percent to 56 percent in Mozambique and from 1 percent to 44 percent in Uganda.
  3. The intake of OFSP among young children, older children, and women increased by two- thirds or more in both countries when OFSP was available.
  4. As a result of item 3, total vitamin A intakes among young children, older children, and women increased significantly in both countries. Notably for children aged 6–35 months, OFSP contributed 78 percent of their total vitamin A intake in Mozambique and 53 percent in Uganda.
  5. In Uganda, more vitamin A obtained from eating OFSP was associated with a lower likelihood of vitamin A deficiency among both children 5–7 years and women who had lower levels of vitamin A at the start of the project.
  1.                     The Sweet Potato Profit and Health Initiative coordinated by CIP (in which NRI is partner) , was launched in 2009, bringing together various programmes and projects, with the goal of improving the lives of 10 million African households in 17 sub-Saharan countries by 2020 through access to improved varieties of Sweet Potato, which builds on the proof of concept work described above and other work. Between 2014 and 2019, it is estimated that there have been 4,838,012 beneficiaries of vitamin A enriched sweetpotato.


  1.                     The biofortification approach has worked because it has added essential micronutrients to major staple food crops – effectively improving the diets of those most in need.  Especially important in the approach were: ensuring that biofortified crops performed at least as well if not better than non-biofortifed crops; understanding the acceptability of biofortified crops; and the behaviour change activities to support adoption.


D.    What is your assessment of the level of priority afforded to agricultural programmes in Sub-Saharan Africa by the Department for International Development?


  1.                     The latest DFID conceptual framework on agriculture was published November 2015 which updated the earlier 2005 paper. Much had changed in the ten years between the reports and one could argue there has been even more significant change in the past five years demonstrating the need for an update on DFID’s thinking. The 2015 framework reemphasised the importance that DFID put on the agriculture sector but with an increasing focus on resilience and promoting food security. There has also been a clear push towards commercial agriculture in more recent years which raises many questions with regard to smallholders.


  1.                     In tracking the monies, investment by DFID in 2007 in the agriculture sector was £262m rising to £632m in 2012 thereafter plateauing to the time of the 2015 paper. Looking at DevTracker today we observe a figure of £231m which would indicate funding levels have declined to those observed in the past decade. It appears that there are fewer project opportunities with a specific focus on agriculture than ten years ago, albeit agriculture may well feature as an important component within sectoral programmes.


  1.                     In terms of agricultural research, DFID have moved away from significant investments in centrally managed programmes such as the Renewable Natural Resources Research Strategy (RNRRS, 1995-2006). DFID clearly want to see an increase in the pace at which (agricultural) research is put into sustainable use. They are right to do so. DFID have invested in significant programmes such Research into Use' (2006-2013) to understand what hinders the rate of uptake and use. Thereafter, investment in the CG system has continued but there has been greater alignment of DFID agricultural research budgets with foundations such as BMGF, UKRI - including funding several rounds under the Agri-tech Catalyst scheme and financing the first window under the AECF Research into Business scheme. There are good arguments to be made regarding strategic alignment of funds with others to reduce risk, attain (greater) impact, it could also be argued this is an easier means of disbursement of funds.


  1.                     Official Development Assistance (ODA) are not only spent through DFID. The £1.5 billion Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), administered through UK Research and Innovation has been a significant stimulus to research on international development issues, particularly in terms of collaboration between UK and low- and middle-income countries. There is an identified theme on food systems research within the GCRF. Although the fund was launched in 2015, it is too early to see the impact of this work on agricultural productivity in sub-Saharan Africa. Clearly there has been a stimulus to activity, but this needs to be maintained and integrated into the applied research and development programmes of DFID if we are to see long term impacts on economic growth and improved food and nutrition security.


E.     How will climate change affect the Sub-Saharan African agricultural sector?


  1.                     Climate change will take different forms in different sub-regions of Africa, with strong decreases in rainfall in Southern Africa, increases in highland East Africa and coastal West Africa, and more uncertain predictions for the Sahel and lowland East Africa. However, temperatures will rise, rainfall will become much more variable, and extreme rainfall events (droughts and floods) will become more common virtually everywhere. Projections for the productivity of major cereal crops and important cash crops like coffee are highly negative, but the scientific understanding of climate impacts on rootcrops, on livestock, on agricultural pests, diseases and weeds, and the whole post-harvest sector, is very under-developed. Importantly for African smallholders and other categories of the rural poor, the impacts of climate change will be exacerbated by pre-existing vulnerabilities: poverty, various forms of inequality, low access to information, land tenure insecurity, limited ability to influence policy, and other forms of environmental degradation. These vulnerabilities, added to the tendency for African smallholders to produce complex portfolios of different crops and livestock species combined with off-farm livelihoods, make the impacts on African agriculture very locally specific and hard to model. The indigenous knowledge of African farmers will be a major resource for their adaptation to climate change, but in many cases the rate of change will be too great for indigenous knowledge to be relied on. Adaptation can be enhanced by programmes that facilitate agricultural innovation jointly by multiple stakeholders (farmers themselves, scientists, the private sector), but current models of agricultural extension are not necessarily attuned to this.


F.     Other issues to which we would like to draw attention


  1.                     Many countries in sub-Saharan Africa are currently behind the curve in terms of the impacts of COVID-19. As and when countries in SSA do implement lockdowns, these will have impacts on agricultural productivity and food distribution and marketing, which in turn will have a negative effective on food and nutrition security. This needs to be considered in the short to medium terms as investments are made in the agricultural sector in Africa. As a result of COVID-19, important agricultural value chains in sub-Saharan Africa are now broken. There is significant UK experience, including at the Natural Resources Institute, which could make an important contribution in analysing and managing value chains (e.g. VCA4D which NRI leads for Agrinatura; NRI has also recently published a series of articles, which provide opinions on the impacts of COVID-19 in developing countries (


  1.                     The crop sector of the agricultural industry in sub-Saharan Africa is repeatedly exposed to migratory and invasive insect pests. Over the course of the last decade food production in Africa has been exposed to the tomato leaf miner (Tuta absoluta) which was introduced from Latin America via southern Europe, followed by the Fall Army Worm (Spodoptera frugiperda) which is primarily a problem in maize but also other crops which also came from the Americas. In both cases these invasive pests spread with great rapidity, totally destroying crops in some areas and became a challenge to government agencies who were ill equipped to address a rapidly spreading insect pest. At the time of writing the desert locust is going through a massive outbreak which is causing damage across much of Africa, and particularly in the Horn of Africa. Due to the periodic nature of this pest, which has not had an outbreak for many years, once again farmers and government agencies are ill equipped to deal with the scale of the problem and lack both the tools and the knowledge to adequately address the challenge. In all these cases the responses are ponderous and negative impact on food security is high due to the time it takes to act. NRI is well equipped and has experience to bring to help address these pest problems, but the mechanisms to rapidly bring the knowledge available to those requesting support are lacking.


Received 28 April 2020




Contributions were made by:

Professor Andrew Westby
Professor Adrienne Martin
Professor Ben Bennett
Professor John Morton
Professor Richard Hopkins
Dr Andy Frost
Dr Tim Chancellor
John Linton


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