Event: Agriculture in Africa -- Telling Facts from Myths

“Rural youth are leaving agriculture in droves.” “Women perform the bulk of farm work.” “Few farmers use fertilizers and other modern inputs.”

These statements tend to be widely accepted, but are they actually true? Yes and no, and the answer will continue to change, said experts at Monday’s conference on “Agriculture in Africa: Telling Facts from Myths.”

Co-hosted by the World Bank and IFPRI, the event highlighted findings from the Bank’s Living Standards Measurement Study – Integrated Surveys on Agriculture (LSMS-ISA). The project carries out bottom-up investigations into how factors like population growth and urbanization, higher and more volatile global food prices, and climate change are altering the face of Africa’s agricultural sector. The LSMS-ISA surveys use nationally representative data collected in Ethiopia, Malawi, Niger, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Uganda starting in 2008. In his opening remarks, Makhtar Diop, Vice President of the World Bank Africa Region, summed up the day’s main takeaway - data will be the key to unlocking the true state of African agriculture.

“We are now at a time where we are seeing growth in African agriculture, but not at a rate that people want. We need to examine what happened in the last decade to maintain this growth,” Diop said. “But in the absence of data, you use your imagination and create myths.”

Karen Brooks, Director of the CGIAR Research Program on Policies, Institutions and Markets, seconded the need for strong data to question commonly held beliefs. “Mythbusting is really important because it keeps our thinking fresh,” she said. “It is also crucial for good policy design.”

One of the more surprising myths that was busted was that of women’s contribution to the agricultural workforce. While the percentage of agricultural labor performed by women is typically cited as being high, between 60-80 percent, this is not the case in several of the study countries, according to Amparo Palacios-Lopez of the World Bank. She found while women make up around 50 percent of the labor force in Uganda, Tanzania, and Malawi, in other countries that number is much lower. In Nigeria, women perform only 37 percent of total agricultural work, and the percentage falls to 29 percent in Ethiopia and 24 percent in Niger. Noting that more research is needed to identify consistent patterns across countries, Palacios-Lopez nonetheless concluded, “Even in the best-case scenario, the numbers will never reach the 60-80 percent range.”

While other beliefs were found to be true – for example, that the majority of African households are net food buyers – some were neither entirely true nor entirely false, leading researchers to dub them “myth-ish”.  The understanding of modern input use fell into this category. Megan Sheahan of Cornell University found that more than one-third of African farmers utilize inorganic fertilizer on their land, averaging 26 kg/ha. This belies the common wisdom that fertilizer use remains dismally low.  Her findings also contradict the belief that fertilizers are utilized mainly for cash crops destined for export; rather, inorganic fertilizers are used equally as much on food crops such as maize. Similarly, improved seed varieties appear to be very commonly used. However, the data does point to the fact that the use of other modern inputs, such as mechanization and irrigation or other water control systems, is in fact quite low. Sheahan noted that only 2-5 percent of cultivated land in the study countries had any kind of irrigation.

The experts at Monday’s event agreed that while all of these findings are potentially important for future policymaking, what really matters is that data collection continues and that this data forms the basis for development programs moving forward.

“It’s difficult to convince people that you need to continue to gather data,” said Chris Barrett of Cornell University. “But change is constant, and many findings will eventually be out of date. So data needs to be consistently maintained.”

It was also pointed out that data cannot exist in a vacuum – it needs to be accessible to everyone and integrated with broader issues, such as nutrition. Furthermore, African countries need to be in a position to actually put the data into use. “Capacity-building is key,” said IFPRI Director General Shenggen Fan. “Until countries can lead their own programs, development will not happen.”

By: Sara Gustafson

Photo credit:Flickr: CIAT