1 April 2015

The reasons why the Green Revolution might still not be an option for Africa

Two researchers, one from IFPRI and one from Cornell University have investigated into reasons why the Green Revolution approach based on the cultivation of cereals with use of irrigation, high-yielding hybrid seeds and agrochemicals (fertiliser, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, etc.)  is not working in Africa.

In the past, the failure of attempts to replicate in Africa Asia’s wide adoption of Green Revolution technology had generally been put on the account of:

  1. The high cost of labour in sparsely populated countries

  2. The persistence of large low population density rural areas with abundant land and

  3. Specific agroecological characteristics that explain the importance of non-cereal crops (roots and tubers, industrial and export crops).

Three additional factors may be added here to these frequently mentioned reasons reviewed in the study:

  1. The traditional food consumption patterns which give, in many parts of the continent an overwhelming importance to the consumption of roots and tubers (e.g. yam, plantain and, more recently, cassava) and of traditional cereals particularly in West and Central Africa

  2. The priority given historically to export crops, and

  3. The relatively weak research systems as well as the neglect in which it has long left root and tuber crops while focusing on traditional export crops (i.e. cocoa, coffee, cotton) and, more recently, on maize for which a lot of knowledge had been accumulated in other parts of the world.

With rapid population increase and the growing food deficit observed in Africa, many had expected that renewed efforts to promote the Green Revolution technology  - through the Gates Foundation-supported Growing Africa’s Future (AGRA), for example, but also through government programmes since the 2008 food security crisis - would be more successful: it was believed that conditions in African countries would now become similar to those prevailing in Asia than a few decades ago. But the fact is that Green Revolution technologies are still not widely adopted in Africa.

To try to understand why this is the case, the two above researchers undertook a study of Ghana, a country selected because of its fast population growth, remarkable agricultural performance and average level of population density.

The result of their study confirms that the Green Revolution approach is still not being widely adopted in Ghana. The authors put this on the account of the persistent high cost of labour in rural areas, because of rapid urbanisation, and observe that in densely populated areas, producers follow a ‘‘strategy that combines income diversification away from agriculture, specialization in cassava to produce high levels of food output without increasing fertilizer use per hectare, and increased used of labor- saving technologies like herbicides and mechanization to reduce the impact of the high opportunity cost of labor’’. Therefore, there seems to be no clear positive relationship between population density and intensification of production measured by yield levels, in fact data collected by the researchers even suggest the opposite. Besides, when more intensive technologies are being used (e.g. fertiliser and pesticides) it is more for root and tree crops than for cereals.

The authors argue that the main explanation to this situation is that structural characteristics of the economy (urbanisation which maintains low population density in rural areas despite demographic growth, importance of mineral resources -including oil - which attract rural labour to urban or mining areas) contribute to maintain high labour costs. One could add that, in those countries where mineral exports are very important - and there are many such countries in Africa -, this tends to make agriculture unattractive and uncompetitive because of the well known Dutch Disease.

The consequence of these findings is that there is a need to reconsider fundamentally the way agricultural production is being promoted in Africa. But it would be an error to go for the approach that is advocated by many and that would contribute to marginalise the large number of small farmers that characterise African agriculture (i.e. promote investment in agriculture by large farms by private corporations) and condemn them to migrate to cities where well remunerated employment opportunities remain nevertheless limited, particularly for unskilled labour. Rather there is a need to put the effort on developing more natural resource-friendly and low-input technologies that are also more accessible to small resource-poor farmers. [read] In those countries where large income from exports tend to overvalue the local currency, there may also be a good case in favor of applying a levy on imported food in order to protect local commercial agriculture which, otherwise, is likely to be wiped out by cheep imports, leaving only a stagnating low-productivity subsistance agriculture that survives in misery.

Let’s conclude this short article by a word of caution: Africa is a very diverse continent [read p.5 to 25] and conclusions from Ghana should not be generalised. It is not possible to believe that the same solution should be applied everywhere on the continent ! Whereas the general orientation is valid everywhere (priority to family agriculture, development of accessible and natural resources-friendly technologies), specific policy measures will need to be fine-tuned to the local context.


Further readings:

  1. -Nin-Pratt, A. and L. McBride, Agricultural intensification in Ghana: Evaluating the optimist’s case for a Green Revolution, Food Policy 48 (2014) 153–167

  2. -The New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition in Africa: focus on land and seeds,, 2015

  3. -The Africa Progress Panel proposes more of the same old recipes to tackle hunger and poverty in Africa,, 2014

  4. -We must turn the page of the Green Revolution and find new solutions to the problems of food and agriculture today, 2014

  5. -Africa commits to eliminate hunger by 2025: will priority be given to a sustainable family agriculture?, 2014

  6. -Two approaches to agricultural development in Africa,, 2013


Last update:    April 2015

For your comments and reactions: