Although the overall economic situation in sub-Saharan Africa appears to have improved in recent years, any discussion about a sustained turnaround for the region must consider the rural sector and the role of agricultural development in improving the livelihood of the poor. Even as better macroeconomic management and higher export commodity prices have in recent years led to per capita income growth in several countries, the poorest rural populations—the landless or small landowners who are net consumers of food—remain desperately poor. According to World Bank statistics, over half of sub-Saharan Africa’s rural population still lives in poverty, and the depth of poverty is greater than in any other region of the world, with many surviving on roughly $0.60 per day.

Economic gains throughout the region have been far from equal, with income disparities growing both between and within countries. The gap in GDP per capita between the richest and poorest deciles of sub-Saharan African countries almost doubled from a factor of ten to eighteen between 1975 and 2005. Within two of the fastest growing economies—oil-exporters Angola and Chad—the child mortality rates are 260 and 208 per 1,000, respectively, and the life expectancy at birth is 41 in the former, 44 in the latter. These grim statistics are comparable to those in two of the region’s slowest-growing economies, Niger and Guinea-Bissau. Welfare measures in all of these countries could be improved with steady gains in rural development, particularly for small-scale farmers. But “steady” is not a word commonly used to describe the region. The economic growth process during the past three decades has been characterized by extreme volatility stemming from world commodity price fluctuations, conflict, weather shocks, and poor governance. Whether the region can sustain prolonged and widespread economic development remains to be seen.

There is no clearer evidence of the fragility of sub-Saharan Africa’s economic progress than the current global food crisis. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization expects the annual cereal import bills of most countries in the region to rise by at least 75 percent this year (compared with 56 percent for low-income, food-importing countries outside the region), while import volumes are projected to decline. Increased demand for domestically grown crops, such as sorghum and millet, is pushing prices up for all commodities. Food riots have broken out in Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Cameroon, Senegal, Mauritania, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Guinea, and Madagascar. In rural areas where staple crop yields are low, soil fertility is poor, and market access is weak, the silent swell of hunger continues to rise. Given that poor households already spend 60-80 percent of their incomes on staple foods, the price hikes translate directly into fewer and smaller meals per day. World Bank president Robert Zoellick projects that the ongoing food crisis is likely to eliminate virtually all gains in poverty and hunger reduction achieved since the Millennium Development Goals were established in 2000.

The global food crisis highlights three points crucial to sub-Saharan Africa’s development process. First, international and domestic investments in agricultural productivity for staple crops in the region have been woefully inadequate during the past few decades. In 2000 sub-Saharan Africa received only 6.3 percent of global public expenditures and 0.2 percent of global private expenditures on agricultural research and development. As a result, even in rain-fed areas the region has not experienced anything close to the agricultural productivity success experienced in the rest of the developing world for the last 30 years. Moreover, high population growth is creating an even greater need for yield increases. Large “exploitable yield gaps” (the difference between yields in farmers’ fields and yields at crop research stations) exist for most staple crops, but fertilizer and water are lacking, as are critical institutional structures like well-functioning credit, seed, fertilizer, and product markets, and methods for managing risks, particularly for smallholders.

Second, the current high-price environment for essential food crops provides a powerful incentive for agricultural investments in sub-Saharan Africa. But such investments will likely come from both the public and private sectors, not smallholder farmers. The latter simply do not have the resources to respond to price incentives through agricultural investments, especially since their (net) food expenditures are increasing. A 2000 Michigan State study of the Zambian maize sector found that 2 percent of all farmers accounted for one half of total maize sales in the country. The other half came from 23 percent of the farmers, leaving the remaining 75 percent of maize producers consuming virtually all of their output at home. The challenge in the near term will be to design and execute investment strategies that actually reach the poor, rather than tilting the balance further toward larger farmers. Improving livelihoods of the poorest populations will require political will and a focus on equity, agricultural productivity, and nutritional outcomes.

Finally, with only 4 percent of the region’s agricultural land under irrigation, the rural economy is likely to suffer significantly from climate change over the next twenty-five years and beyond, unless substantial efforts are made to help farmers adapt. Higher temperatures, declining soil moisture, and variable rainfall will make farming more difficult in most areas. Miguel discusses this danger with reference to the results of one climate model applied to the Sahel. Researchers at Stanford University conducted a more thorough analysis of climate risks for almost two dozen crops in the region. It shows that by 2030 southern African maize production is likely to fall by 30 percent, while several other African crops (millet, cowpea, wheat) will likely fall by 10-15 percent. The projections mark early warnings of change; the models indicate that, by mid-century, temperature will already be out of bounds from what is experienced today: the coldest years in the future will still be warmer than the hottest years in the past century.

What this dramatic shift in climate means for agriculture, migration, and economic growth in sub-Saharan Africa depends to a great extent on future investments in rural development. Strategies for crop breeding programs, small-scale irrigation, and risk-management schemes for the poor need to be high on the political agendas of sub-Saharan countries and the international community. As the present food crisis sadly suggests, Africa will reach a sustained turnaround only when its people can afford to eat.  ©