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This article is republished with permission from Consultancy Africa Intelligence (CAI). For more information, see Consultancy Africa Intelligence.

Forgotten farmers: Poverty and development in rural Africa

By Daniel R. Donovan[1]

Poverty in Africa is not a new phenomenon. During the colonial period, European powers oppressed and impoverished many indigenous Africans specifically to maintain a stranglehold over the population while vast resources were exploited for the benefit of the colonial power.[2] Then, following the decolonisation period of the mid-twentieth century, many leaders that emerged to govern the newly formed nations followed the example of their colonial predecessors and treated the independent states like personal property, failing to consider the basic needs of the country’s inhabitants.[3] The colonial practice of distinguishing among and showing favouritism toward different tribes also led to deep ethnic resentment and divisions, which in turn fuelled an abundance of post-colonial civil wars, further crippling development.[4]

A near-constant flow of aid from across the globe floods Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) every year, with over US$ 51 billion in net receipts reaching the region in 2011.[5]  Still it remains the most impoverished region on earth, with 48% of the population living on US$ 1.25 per day or less, and almost 70% living on US$ 2 per day or less.[6] Africa now represents almost 25% of the global population categorised as poor, and the number of people living in poverty has doubled since 1981.[7] However, a fact that is much less discussed is that the majority of poverty in Africa exists in rural communities.[8] More than 70% of all impoverished Africans live in rural communities, wholly dependent on agriculture for their livelihood.[9]

Agriculture in SSA comprises nearly onethird of the continental gross domestic product (GDP) and two thirds of employment, making rural Africa a vital component to the overall economic development of the region.[10] Despite agriculture making up an essential component of the regional economy, development assistance in this sector has diminished considerably over the last 30 years.[11] This has led to extreme discrepancies in education and literacy between rural and urban children, which reinforces the cycle of poverty, with children experiencing the same squalid lifestyle as their parents and their grandparents.[12] With rising food and gases prices, coupled with a growing population, the problems with rural development in SSA are doomed to get worse before they get better.

Photo source: www.in2eastafrica.net

Photo source: www.in2eastafrica.net

This CAI paper explores the basic economics of rural development in SSA, specifically addressing the struggling agriculture sector and the realities facing poor, independent, small farmers littered across the continent. Since many of these realities mirror Asia in the 1960s prior to the Green Revolution, the paper discusses the programmes implemented during the Green Revolution in Asia and how they remain relevant. It then explains how many of the same strategies utilised during the Green Revolution can be applied to African agriculture, building a sustainable, long-term system for small farmers to blossom. This is followed by a detailed examination of the United Nations Human Development Index (HDI) to show how each stage of development must be addressed in the rural communities to create a sustainable society in all facets. With the UN’s Millennium Development Goal’s (MDGs) deadline rapidly approaching, reducing poverty, granting greater access to healthcare and improving educational standards in rural Sub-Saharan Africa, with an efficient system of sustainable development, remains a necessity.

Economics of rural Africa and the Asian Green Revolution

Although agriculture makes up a substantial portion of the average person’s livelihood in Sub-Saharan Africa, the region’s average yield remains much lower than anywhere else on the globe.[13] Furthermore, the food production per capita has remained nearly stagnant since 1960, while other developing regions in Asia and Latin America have experienced steady food production increases during that same period.[14] Factor in the large spike in population growth, and a sizeable portion of Africans not only have trouble carving out their niche in the economy, but they also struggle to produce enough food for their families to prevent starvation. The ongoing population boom will only compound the problem.

As described by Hazell, beginning in the 1960s, the rural farmers that populated much of Asia suffered from extreme malnourishment and starvation, much like the average farmer in SSA today.[15] The Green Revolution was launched to streamline and improve farming methods to increase outputs through a series of innovations spread to farmers. Using irrigation, improved seeds, fertilizers and pesticides as part of a single package, the improvements in farming eventually led to food surpluses across Asia, helping bolster the economy and pull a region on the brink of starvation into the realm of economic security. What is important to note is that government intervention in pricing for start-up supplies ensured that the small farmers were not excluded from programmes. Other subsidiary benefits of the programme included lowering food prices for average families, increased raw materials for export and a boost in demand across non-agriculture sectors of the economy, and providing jobs and growth in the service and manufacturing industries. Asia remains the area with the greatest Green Revolution success and unprecedented agricultural growth, leading to overall economic growth and development in previously untouched regions. However, the Green Revolution was also successful in Latin America, the Middle East and North Africa. While Africa could certainly learn from the Green Revolution and adopt some of the foundations that made it successful, several factors must be considered to adjust the system to fit the environment on the continent.

So why has the Green Revolution failed in Africa? There are several things that have hurt the process across Africa. However, two of the main factors preventing widespread success in the region are the lack of rural infrastructure and governmental support for such programmes.[16] Due to a strong deficiency in transportation infrastructure, the condition of roads that grant access to small rural communities remains a major challenge. Without the affordable means to transport the nutrient packages to small, outlying farms, the cost of supplying seed and fertiliser to many areas of rural Africa is simply not affordable. In addition, even if the packages were provided, the same problem exists in transporting the surplus crops to areas where they can be sold for profit. Couple this with a lack of government investment necessary to support a move towards revolutionising agriculture, and African farmers suffer the consequences.

Rural Africa remains in a unique situation economically as an estimated 90% of all agricultural production comes from small farms.

Image provided by: http://rererecycling.blogspot.com

Image provided by: http://rererecycling.blogspot.com

[17] This means that any semblance of a Green Revolution for Africa would need to be adjusted to favour small farmers. This also means that if a successful system could be constructed, then impoverished small farming communities would immediately see the impact. This would then trickle down to other industries. Presently  average rural families in Africa spends a larger portion of their income on food in general, thus they are left with a much smaller portion than their urban counterparts to spend on clothes, shoes and other possessions.[18] The larger rural population currently prevents the same bottom-up, cross-industry development displayed when the average person has additional funds for such items.

Due to the challenges and setbacks in the agricultural industry, the rural development of Africa has suffered greatly. Development in the agricultural sector would reap tremendous rewards for the continent’s development as “the benefits of agricultural growth for rural development include provision of food, income, jobs in the agro-food chain [and] incomes for education and health services.”[19] The next section outlines the factors involved in the UN Human Development Index and how these additional foundations of development will need to be addressed to help improve African rural development.

Rural Africa and the Human Development Index

In 1990, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) created the Human Development Report (HDR) in an attempt to present a clearer picture of actual development than traditional data had been able to provide. The concept was “people are the real wealth of a nation.”[20]  This new way of analysing actual data involves three factors which make up the Human Development Index (HDI). These factors are health, education and living standards.[21] Of the 44 countries listed in the Low Human Development category of the HDI, 34 of them, or 77% of the least developed countries, including the bottom ten, are located in Sub-Saharan Africa.[22] In fact, the index for the whole of Sub-Saharan Africa has practically mirrored the index for low human development since the HDI’s inception.[23]

The previous section described the problems with agriculture that result in poverty, as much of the population in SSA depends on agriculture for their livelihood. However, education and access to healthcare are also major challenges towards successful development in rural communities. Education remains a major obstacle for African rural communities. In many countries in SSA, the average adult attends school for less than four years.[24] There remains a strong link between education and poverty, as a lack of education cripples learning capacity and productivity, while food insecurity promotes poor school attendance, as subsistence farmers are forced to spend more time on outputs and often use school age children in this struggle to locate their next meal.[25] Furthermore, the gender gap in rural communities’ education system is enormous, with no country in Sub-Saharan Africa maintaining a truly gender equal system.[26] The reality of formal education in rural communities does not exist as many do not even have schools or teachers, thus there is no opportunity for learning for the youth of these areas. Only 68% of rural children have access to education.[27]

Image courtesy of: http://hdr.undp.org

Image courtesy of: http://hdr.undp.org

Although some countries have made significant strides in promoting compulsory education, many rural children still do not attend due to the costs involved in attending and completing school, the lack of investment from national governments, as well as the limited capacity for total enrolment—stemming from a lack of teachers and adequate schools and facilities.[28] This lack of access and suitable infrastructure has lowered adult literacy rates and resulted in several generations of families that struggle with starvation and poverty with no opportunities to change their lives. This lack of education also spills over to adults in rural communities as they are unable to receive proper training to manage their farms to become and stay profitable.[29] The struggles of an effective education system for rural communities in SSA contribute to the lack of development in the region. Neglected training and education limits children’s capacity to advance their futures and for adults to maximise the  potential of the land designated to maintain or improve their family’s livelihood. As universal primary education is listed as one of the MDGs, this challenge must be addressed with vigour by SSA governments to meet the expectations by 2015.

Another facet of development that coincides with the MDGs of 2015, the HDI and the challenges of life in rural SSA is access to health care. While across the board overall health indicators have shown significant progress, the state of the health system in rural SSA remains daunting.[30] Improvements in areas such as infant mortality and life expectancy at birth reveal a shift in the right direction, but the simple truth remains that Africa still lags well behind the rest of the world in almost every statistical health category.[31] Some conservative estimates state that 40% of people in SSA have no access to health care, with most of these people residing in rural sectors of the region.[32] Inaccessible health care systems make even the most preventable or treatable disease deadly without the proper attention. Even when people do have access to some health care, limited access to doctors, medicine and proper equipment renders this health care less effective.[33] In fact, 80% of the people in Tanzania will never see a doctor in their lifetime.[34] New systems that incorporate mobile technology to provide certain health services to remote parts of the continent are beginning to be unveiled, but long-term sustainable solutions will take time.[35] Providing an efficient, affordable and practical system to allow sustainable access to health care will supply another essential piece towards improving the overall well-being of the inhabitants of rural SSA.


The correlation between education, poverty and health care in the world of development remains tight and all three are analysed when compiling scores for the UN HDI. Under the HDI guidelines, SSA is the least-developed region on earth.[36] This also puts much of SSA well behind achieving the MDGs pertaining to poverty, education and health care. Given that a majority of people live in the rural regions of SSA, and the vast differences between urban and rural people in terms of income, education and well-being, rural Africa is the domain with the greatest need for sustainable improvements in all development indicators.

Despite the apparent direness of the situation, the simple link between the three primary factors of human development makes the situation one that can be tackled with bottom-up strategies. The first and most important factor involved is poverty and starvation. If people cannot eat, they cannot survive or be productive. If they cannot generate income, they cannot participate in a national economy and are therefore dependent wholly on outside forces to provide for their well-being. By incorporating many of the same ideologies as the Green Revolution in Asia, rural African farmers can better utilise their land to not only produce enough food to sustain their communities, but also to produce provide a surplus, giving them additional income and making them an immediate participant in their nation’s economic system. For this to occur, government support will need to be increased, especially with infrastructure projects, such as building and refurbishing roads, to ensure that agricultural subsidy packages can reach the farmers who need them, and the farmers can return to the markets to sell their crops.

Photo source: http://africa.ipsterraviva.net

Photo source: http://africa.ipsterraviva.net

As described in Baltzer and Hansen, a few African nations have introduced subsidy programmes to help improve outputs of their rural farming community.[37] When Malawi introduced ‘smart’ subsidies in 2005-6, called the Agriculture Input Support Programme (AISP), which focused on supplying Green Revolution-like packages for small, poor farmers, the results were extraordinary. With conservative estimates indicating that total maize production rose by 23% in 2005/6 and 54% in 2008/9, the benefits did not only spread to farmers, but also generated higher rural wages to landless farm workers. This programme contributed to the overall economy, but required a substantial investment by the Malawi government, similar to the government investment in the Asian Green Revolution. Although there was a lull in returns on investment in certain years, the output appeared positive.  While many of the subsidies failed to reach the most impoverished farmers, the programme still focused on smaller farmers. Whether or not such a programme can be beneficial long-term—without constant governmental investment—remains to be seen. Other countries using subsidies programmes, such as Zambia and Tanzania, have seen some benefits, but constant government investment for maintenance is still an issue. These countries should be lauded for their attempts at helping curb rural poverty, but they must avoid the trap of implementing a system that benefits only those that can afford it.

Food security is paramount for lasting development in rural SSA. Poverty levels among those living below the poverty line in SSA are higher in rural areas than in urban areas and hunger and malnutrition, as expressions of this poverty, are found at greater levels in rural SSA.[38] This has a significant impact on both education and overall health standards, as malnutrition and hunger lead to higher child mortality, stunted growth, damage to physical and cognitive development, as well as decreased school enrolment and completion.[39] While access to schools poses a problem for rural communities, food security must first be solved to ensure that every child can not only attend school, but can learn at an optimal level and see the process through to completion. In the absence of a child’s ability to learn optimally and complete at least a primary level education, access to schools becomes a secondary issue.

Poverty and hunger in rural Africa inevitably need to be addressed. Utilising some of the lessons learned through the Green Revolution can help jumpstart programmes to ensure food security for the poorest regions. These tools will need to be adjusted to match the environmental differences in SSA, but the principles of the Green Revolution remain a cornerstone in repairing the fractured societies present in many rural communities. When hunger, poverty and food security issues are solved by empowering small farmers, education and overall health will follow suit. However, without serious government investment in sustainable development through training, farm improvement packages and infrastructure for transportation, the system could crumble before it begins. Even though the MDGs attempted to address the challenges of SSA, the countries have yet to fully support the idea of improving development in rural Africa. Once outside investment in rural bottom-up development projects is streamlined, the situation can be improved, but it must start with the small, poor farmers across the continent to address the challenges at their root.

[1] Contact Daniel R. Donovan through Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Africa Watch Unit (africa.watch@consultancyafrica.com). This CAI discussion paper was developed with the assistance of Claire Furphy and was edited by Nicky Berg.

[2] Alemazung, J., “Post-colonial colonialism: An analysis of international factors and actors marring African socio-economic and political development,” The Journal of Pan African Studies, 3(10), September 2010.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] ‘Development aid at a glance: Statistics by region, Africa,’ OECD, 2013, http://www.oecd.org.

[6] ‘Data: Poverty.’ The World Bank, 2010, http://data.worldbank.org.

[7] ‘Income inequality in Africa,’ African Development Bank Group, 7 March 2012, http://www.afdb.org.

[8] ‘Rural poverty in Africa,’ Rural Poverty Portal, 2009, http://www.ruralpovertyportal.org.

[9] Ibid.

[10] ‘Issue brief: Agriculture,’ One, 2012, http://www.one.org.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Zhang, Y., 2006. Urban-rural literacy gaps in sub-Saharan Africa: The roles of socioeconomic status and school quality. Comparative Education Review, 50(4), pp. 581-602.

[13] McArthur, J.W., 2013. Good things grow in scaled packages: Africa’s agricultural challenge in historical context. African Growth Initiative: Brookings, http://www.brookings.edu.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Hazell, P.B.R., 2009. The Asian Green Revolution. IFPRI, Discussion Paper 00911, http://www.ifpri.org.

[16] Ibid.

[17] ‘Small farmers are feeding the world,’ Greenpeace, 2013, http://www.greenpeace.org.

[18] Gollin, D., Rogerson, R. and College, W., 2010. Agriculture, roads and economic development in Uganda. NBER Working Papers, 15863, http://www.nber.org.

[19] ‘Education for rural people in Africa,’ UNESCO, 2006, http://unesdoc.unesco.org.

[20] ‘About human development,’ United Nations Development Program, 2013, http://hdr.undp.org.

[21] ‘Human Development Index,’ United Nations Development Program, 2013, http://hdr.undp.org.

[22] ‘International Human Development Indicators,’ United Nations Development Program, 2013, http://hdr.undp.org.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Education for rural people in Africa,’ UNESCO, 2006, http://unesdoc.unesco.org.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid; ‘Education in rural Africa,’ Africa 24 Media, 2011, http://photography.a24media.com.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] ‘World health statistics 2013,’ World Health Organization, 2013, http://www.who.int.; Chetty, L.R., ‘Why is Africa’s healthcare so far behind the rest of the world?’ Christian Science Monitor, 10 May 2013, http://www.csmonitor.com.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Knapp, T., Richardson, B. and Viranna, S., ‘Three practical steps to better health for Africans,’ McKinsey Quarterly, June 2010, http://www.mckinsey.com.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] ‘New campaign to train one million community health workers for sub-Saharan Africa,’ One Million Health Workers, 24 January 2013, http://1millionhealthworkers.org.

[36] ‘Human Development Index,’ United Nations Development Program, 2013, http://hdr.undp.org.

[37] Baltzer K. and Hansen, H., ‘Evaluation study agricultural input subsidies in sub-Saharan Africa,’ Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Denmark and DANIDA, 2011, http://www.oecd.org.

[38] Education for rural people in Africa,’ UNESCO, 2006, http://unesdoc.unesco.org.

[39] Ibid.