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New pathways out of poverty in Africa through sustainable and inclusive agricultural transformation

Agricultural transformation has become a development priority for African governments and the international development community. It is commonly understood as a shift from ‘low’ productivity subsistence agriculture to more commercially-oriented production. This shift is seen as the first step away from the continent’s continued dependence on raw commodity exports, and towards diversified and domestically integrated economies that provide sufficient employment opportunities to the world’s youngest and fastest-growing population. 

This is to be welcomed. However, this report highlights the risk that agricultural transformation strategies already underway in some African countries could increase inequality and further degrade the environment. To prevent this from happening agriculture transformation strategies need to:

  • integrate actions that will build the resilience of producer households and wider ecosystems to climate and economic shocks, instead of focusing predominantly on increasing the productivity of smallholders
  • link smallholder producers to the wider domestic economy.

CAFOD and Christian Aid programmes that support small agro-enterprise development, climate resilience building and inclusive agricultural market development include deliberate actions to ensure equitable and environmentally sustainable outcomes. To further promote the integration of these principles in the design and implementation of government policies, we have initiated an on-going dialogue with our partner organisations in Africa to determine how agricultural transformation policies in their own countries can contribute to more equitable and sustainable development.

This dialogue has been inspired by the international community’s recognition that the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, involving 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), demands new thinking on conventional development models. Already in 2011, the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs recognised that ‘continuation along previously trodden economic growth pathways… is no longer an option. There is an urgent need to find new development pathways which would ensure environmental sustainability and reverse ecological destruction, while managing to provide, now and in the future, a decent livelihood for all of humankind’.

In similar vein, the 2009 International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) concluded that the predominant industrial agricultural model cannot be sustained and will never be able to feed the world’s future population.2 The global food system, which depends on this model, is equally in crisis. High price volatility in global food markets led to a food crisis in 2007 and 2008, with millions of low-income consumers and smallholder farming households unable to afford or access basic staples.3

To support the civil society dialogue, we commissioned research to examine the economic theory and history of agricultural transformation, as well as the implementation and impact of policies that aim to support agricultural transformation of three African governments and donors respectively.4 This briefing summarises why agricultural transformation is fundamental to a permanent end to hunger and poverty in Africa and sets out four priority areas for future dialogue and action on agricultural transformation in Africa.

The key development challenge for institutions driving economic transformation in Africa today is to assign greater value to natural and agricultural ecosystems and equality. Once these values underpin agricultural transformation strategies, it will become evident that they need to develop and implement accompanying policies and interventions, as well as the indicators for monitoring progress towards equality and sustainability.

Learning from the lessons of past transformation pathways, we recommend that African governments and development institutions increase their efforts to:

  • protect and promote local, national, and regional agri-food market systems. Existing government and donor efforts are primarily focused on integrating local producers and industries into global value chains. While this is viable for certain cash crops in some areas, Africa’s growing urban and better-connected regional markets offer greater opportunities for inclusive agricultural transformation
  • New pathways out of poverty in Africa: the promise of sustainable and inclusive agricultural transformation

The Report, “New pathways out of poverty in Africa: the promise of sustainable and inclusive agricultural transformation” also offers some salient lessons for agriculturalist and  policy makers.

The report highlights issues that could support new approaches to griculture. These include:

  • The need to protect the rights of vulnerable land users. Most of the fertile arable land in Africa is already in use, mostly for producing food. However, many land users are not officially recognised or protected in law. To avoid the creation of dual rural economies, the multiple land use activities which sustain rural communities must be recognised, valued, and protected
  • The need to switch to environmentally sustainable production systems. New innovations, approaches and technologies – many based on existing and low-cost farmer practices and already extensively in use – have shown great promise in increasing yields while also building soil health. This negates the need for investment in polluting industrial agricultural systems. These innovations will allow African countries to ‘leapfrog’ synthetic chemicals and other (often expensive) inputs and techniques that have ‘oiled’ the agricultural transformations of many Western and Asian countries. This avoids further environmental degradation and enables more effective adaptation to climate change
  • Empowering women agricultural producers and workers. It is widely recognised that while women perform most agricultural labour in Africa, they have far less access than men to the services, skills, finance, assets, and markets that would increase the rewards of their labour. While efforts are already underway to increase such access, there has been far less focus on the equal and parallel need to understand and address gender norms, including those which lead to the disproportionate share of care and reproductive labour they perform in the household and communities.

The Policy Paper is the joint effort of two British charities: Christian Aid and CAFOD. Published in October 2017


What is agricultural transformation?

Agricultural transformation is a term used to describe the shift from ‘low’-productivity subsistence agriculture to more commercially orientated production. The shift towards commercial production leads to higher incomes for the same labour effort, mostly through using new technology and knowledge or investing new capital. The economic history of most industrialised countries shows that such changes in production set off a chain reaction of interlinked processes which eventually led to economic transformation through the development of industries. These create secure, wage-earning jobs and a reasonable income for selfemployed producers. This is the only known permanent pathway out of poverty.7

The new technologies, innovations and inputs required by commercially-orientated farming households to boost productivity also create opportunities for enterprises and workers that can supply this demand. Examples include seed banks, input retailers, transport providers, land workers, and local producers of nonsynthetic fertilisers. Finally, increased output can be a catalyst for further investment in agro-processing enterprises that add value to farm produce locally, as well as a myriad of services and enterprises that are needed to bring these transformed products to intermediary or final consumers.

These ‘linkages’ to the local and national economy, and the new opportunities for work and entrepreneurship they create, are what drive agricultural transformation and its impact on broader economic transformation. Agro-processing enterprises, which add value to food and non-food agricultural products, are often the first or most prominent manufacturing activity in agriculture-based economies. These enterprises, which range in size, can create large numbers of manufacturing work opportunities.



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