Boom and Bust, or Just Boom? What will it be for African agriculture?

January 30, 2013

Historically, African countries rich in natural resources have hinged their economic prosperity on the export of global commodities, and, as such, their economies fluctuate with the rise and fall of global commodity prices. Just look back to the tumultuous boom-and-bust cycle seen during the oil and food crisis of the 1970s: short-lived prosperity followed by financial woe.

During the last decade (2001-2010), however, Africa’s GDP and agricultural sector have maintained a stable, all-time high growth rate (5.2 and 3.4 percent per year, respectively). Does this signal a sustained boom for Africa’s agricultural sector, or will a bust follow? If the former, where does the credit lie?

IFPRI researchers Alejandro Nin-PrattMichael Johnson, and Bingxin Yu sought to determine if the decade-long growth in agriculture is a result of improved government policy and increased public-private investment in agriculture, or if a period of decline was destined to follow because the true cause of growth was the cyclical nature of commodity.

In their paper, Improved Performance of Agriculture in Africa South of the Sahara: Taking Off or Bouncing Back, Nin-Pratt and his fellow authors determine that there is good and bad news about this recent growth. The good: a changing policy environment and increased attention to agriculture has had a major effect. The bad: most of the growth is the result of countries recovering from the poor performance of the 1980s and 1990s, and favorable domestic prices.

If countries want to sustain growth, the authors argue, they need to increase agricultural production to meet internal demands by investing more in improving technical inputs (like fertilizers, equipment, and research and development) and focusing initial production efforts on staple foods. According to the authors, this will produce a “win-win strategy” that will transform the agricultural sector and contribute significantly to overall economic growth, while providing food security to millions of consumers and producers alike.