Unproductive Agriculture Is Holding Africa Back

Africa south of the Sahara is producing more than six times as much food as it did in 1961. That’s a much bigger increase than that of the world as a whole, which has merely quadrupled agricultural output, as this chart shows. From this data alone, sub-Saharan Africa seems to be an agricultural success story.

The next chart, though, gives a much darker picture. It shows sub-Saharan Africa badly trailing the world as a whole in improvements in total factor productivity of agriculture. Total factor productivity measures how much output increases over and above what one would expect from increased inputs of land, labor and machinery.

What these two charts tell us is that while Africa is increasing its output of crops, livestock and so on, it’s managing to do so only by massively increasing its inputs. That means many more farmers and much more land under cultivation or pasture. It’s better than if farm output hadn’t increased at all, but it’s not what the subcontinent needs to get ahead economically.

The classic story of economic development is that farmers become more efficient, which frees up their children to work in factories. The increase in factory output enriches the population, generating more demand for food. And the factories produce farm machinery that makes farmers even more efficient. Improvements in agriculture and industry reinforce each other in an upward spiral.

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