Luc Christiaensen: Good data, establishing the facts in agriculture

Luc Christiaensen is the lead agricultural economist in the Jobs Group of the World Bank and project coordinator of Agriculture in Africa – Telling Myths from Facts. He discusses the findings of the research and the importance of up-to-date, accurate statistics for Africa’s agriculture sector.

Agriculture in Africa is all about differentiating facts and fiction in African agriculture. Why is accurate data and knowledge so important in today’s agricultural sector?

Without good data and a good understanding of the stylised facts, policymakers are basically flying blind. The agricultural sector in particular hasn’t always been served well by good data. As a result, studies, often based on case study approaches in certain districts, regions or countries with salient facts and findings, get a lot of attention over time and are generalised without having been tested in more representative settings. Findings also become outdated. Africa’s agriculture now operates in a new environment. We have seen steady per capita growth, urbanisation and climate change. We have also seen a renewed interest in agriculture after the world food price crisis in 2008. This necessitates new baselines to assess the effectiveness of the new policies.

Your research found that African women did not carry out the majority of agricultural labour. What then is women’s role in agricultural supply?

It has often been stated that women do 60-80% of the agricultural work in Africa. Combined with the finding that there is a 20-25% agricultural productivity gap between men and women, this is used to justify disproportionate attention to women to boost the global food supply. In our six study countries, we found that women do on average about 40% of the work in crop agriculture. Moreover, the productivity gap cited above measures differences in output per hectare and between male and female managed plots (not in terms of labour). With the share of female managed plots and the gap in yields both not exceeding 25%, eliminating this gap would boost total supply by, at most, 6.25%. But there are good reasons to boost female labour productivity in agriculture, such as female empowerment.

The results of our study also only relate to the production side, and don’t take into account processing or anything that happens after harvest. So if we talk about women’s primary role on a family farm, when it comes to food processing, it is clear that this is done mostly by women. Overall, the findings highlight the importance of establishing the facts and using them in the right manner.

From your experience, which inputs and technologies are having the most success in improving agricultural productivity in Africa?

The main insight is that one single intervention is typically not very successful. Over the past decade, there has often been almost a singular focus on increasing fertiliser use. But this alone will not do the trick. A more integrated approach is needed. And while fertiliser subsidy programmes often do also include improved seeds, farmers don’t always combine them on the same plot, pointing to the need of extension. Integrating interventions does increase complexity, but you only get a real bang for your buck by combining the different inputs. And production interventions should be further combined with measures to increase market access. Fully integrated policy experiments are currently underway, for example, under the Farmer to Market Alliance in Tanzania.

With the increasing risks that climate change poses to agriculture, how can traditional farming families diversify their sources of income to increase their resilience?

Income diversification can happen on and off the farm. I believe there is an important agenda for secondary town development to foster diversification off the farm. You then think about rural road development and issues of governance – so what type of independence or physical authority is needed to organise these districts and secondary towns. The largest share of the rural population in Africa – 20-25% – lives within 1-3 hours from a secondary town, while only 9% of the population lives between 1-3 hours from a city. So, they are likely to find it easier to access off-farm work when it is generated in secondary towns. Many of the off-farm employment opportunities in towns can also come from agri-businesses. We are talking about agro-processing, transport, storage, retail, wholesale, and not just for cereals but also for dairy, meat, as well as vegetables and fruits.

For more information see the full review of ‘Food Policy: Agriculture in Africa – Telling Myths from Facts’.

Sophie Reeve

The Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) is a joint international institution of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States and the European Union (EU). CTA operates under the framework of the Cotonou Agreement and is funded by the EU.