Harnessing agricultural innovation to boost Africa’s prosperity

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By Dr Thulasizwe Mkhabela

The last three decades have seen significant progress in reducing poverty and boosting prosperity.

South Africa has made significant strides in this regard in the last two and half decades.

Nevertheless, the World Bank in 2017 estimated that approximately 800 million people continue to live in extreme poverty.

This is further compounded by the fact that regional progress has been uneven, with Sub-Saharan Africa accounting for half of the world’s extreme poor. Therefore, much remains to be done in terms of international efforts to reach the target for 2030 of eradicating extreme poverty as articulated under Sustainable Development Goal 1 (SDG 1).

It should also be borne in mind that for an individual country, such as South Africa in this case, to prosper while its neighbours continue to languish in poverty and other economic ills, is only of little value. In fact, such a development pathway has deleterious unintended consequences of attracting inordinate emigration as people from other countries, far and near, search for a better life.

Granted that poverty is a multidimensional concept, its reduction is achieved through many pathways. History shows that no country has achieved prosperity without growth in productivity in multiple economic sectors such as agriculture, industry, services, etc. and in most cases this growth process is mutually reinforcing.

However, agriculture can and does play a central role in reducing poverty, since the majority of the world’s poor are still rural people who depend upon agriculture for their livelihoods. The same is true also for Africa, despite the fact that the continent is experiencing a burgeoning urban population due to urban migration.

This unprecedented urbanisation is largely due to a young population and stagnating agricultural productivity. Thus, fostering agricultural growth can serve as a critical entry point for designing effective strategies to transform the rural economy and meet SDG 1, and investments in agricultural research for development (AR4D) are key to agricultural growth.

A considerable amount of publicly-funded agricultural research has taken place in the CGIAR, a worldwide partnership addressing AR4D.

The CGIAR has three System Level Outcomes (SLOs) aligned with the SDGs and under SLO 1 aims to assist 100 million people, of whom 50 percent are women, to exit poverty by 2030.

South Africa is an outlier in this case because the overwhelming majority of publicly-funded agricultural research and development has been internally funded and undertaken by public science councils, with the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) being the par excellence institution.

Available evidence to date unequivocally suggests that investment in AR4D provides high economic returns, and has been an effective tool to alleviate poverty. Results from a recent economy-wide simulation study using the Computable General Equilibrium (CGE) Input-Output methodology conducted in South Africa have revealed that investment in agricultural research reduces poverty, creates jobs and increased agricultural contribution to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) more than irrigation, subsidies, or infrastructure investments and is even more beneficial when coupled with these other investments.

Nonetheless, relationships between AR4D strategies and investment priorities for poverty reduction continue to be debated.

Apparent lack of consensus concerning the key links between AR4D and its impact on poverty reduction is a barrier to clarity and effectiveness in development strategy as well as weakening the case for public investment.

Thus, there is a need to intensify locally-based research on the economics of agricultural research and development in order to provide more evidence thereby enabling evidence-based policy making.

Agricultural research institutions in Africa need to increase their capacity to conduct socio-economic impact research to determine the impact of investing in agricultural research for development, over and above conducting the hard core agricultural research and development.

The ARC in partnership with other public research organisations in the agricultural sector such as the National Agricultural Marketing Council (NAMC) are pioneering cutting edge agricultural research and development impact studies in order to determine overall societal contribution towards addressing the three priorities of government, namely; alleviating poverty, combating unemployment and addressing inequality.

Such impact studies provide scientifically sound justifications of investing in agricultural research and development and quantify the return to investment for such endeavours.

The importance of agriculture for Africa’s economic development cannot be overemphasized and the positive correlation between investment in agricultural research and development and increased food and agricultural productivity is undeniable.

Dr Thulasizwe Mkhabela is an agricultural economist and is currently the group executive: Impact & Partnerships at the Agricultural Research Council; mkhabelat@arc.agric.za

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