The Agricultural R&D Challenges of Small Countries in Sub-Saharan Africa

ASTI/IFPRI-FARA Conference Working Paper 3

The experiences of the “smallest of the small” countries in SSA reinforce the conclusions of the earlier ISNAR study. Recent data from seven of the smallest countries in SSA illustrate the diversity of agricultural research systems in these countries. Cross-country institutional structures, investment levels, capacity, and funding mechanisms can vary considerably despite some common challenges. Notwithstanding the small size of these countries, investment and capacity levels are uniformly low. Yet focusing solely on increasing investment and capacity levels is not enough to ensure effective agricultural research agencies. Policy, institutional, and organizational constraints must also be addressed, including strengthening national S&T policies and strategies; developing consistent funding mechanisms; training and incentivizing researchers; and managing links among extension services, farmers, policymakers, and other researchers.

Despite challenges, small-country research systems in SSA should not be considered unviable. World-class research programs can be found in several small countries—for example, Mauritius and Trinidad and Tobago. Small countries may not be able to take advantage of economies of scale and scope, but their small size can also be an advantage in terms of facilitating greater flexibility. As Ezyaguirre (1996) points out, small research systems must find ways to adapt to the constraints they face through innovative institutional arrangements. There are no “one size fits all” models, however. Given the diversity of agricultural production systems, the research system that emerged in Mauritius may not be suitable for a country like Mauritania. Policy and management approaches relating to priority setting and allocating resources must be adjusted to meet each country’s needs. Determinants of the effectiveness of agricultural research agencies, and linkages with performance outcomes, are areas in need of further research.

With the implementation of the regional approach to agricultural R&D in SSA, a shift in resource allocation may occur. An influx of funding toward priority crops may once again create a boom and bust situation for certain research agencies. With proper management, however, the funding could build a foundation for high-quality research, while freeing funds for other research priorities. Well-functioning research and extension systems that address the needs of the agricultural sector can provide high rates of return to investment, even in the small countries. Such systems are essential for a modernized productive agricultural sector that contributes to economic growth and poverty reduction in these countries. The question is whether SSA’s small countries will make the necessary commitments to strengthen efforts to advance agricultural research.

Kathleen Flaherty
Published date: 
International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI); and Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA)
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