Rural economies still reliant on agriculture for sustenance

In spite of agriculture’s strong position in the developing countries, this sector of the economy is still not capable of fulfilling its overall economic tasks because it has been neglected for years in favour of the development of the industrial sector. In Sub-Saharan Africa, agriculture generates at least 30 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP), 40 percent of exports and over 70 percent of employment.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in 2000 acknowledged that the introduction of the ‘green revolution’ in the economies of the developing countries has brought an entirely different perspective of the agricultural sector as a sector that is able to promote sustainable economic growth.

This concept which was introduced as a result of increasing food production to meet the food need of the growing population has yielded fruit in many developing countries. Agriculture growth and development require investment and technology. With them huge productivity gains are possible.

Over the past 20 years, increases in government spending on agriculture in East and South East Asia have been clearly linked to rapid growth in agriculture and to progress towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MGDs).

In sub-Saharan Africa, however, public investment in agriculture is still far below what is needed, despite commitments by African governments to allocate 10 percent of their public spending to it, increased spending on agricultural research is vital, but it is equally important to ensure that the research carried out benefits the smallest farmers.

In a 2015 research article titled “The Role of Agriculture in Economic Development”, the author, Antwi Stephen Bodybobton decries that the public spending on agricultural development has in developing countries “all too often bypassed the most needy farmers, offering solutions that are beyond their reach or simply inappropriate to their needs” adding that “the challenge is to develop technology in a way that is relevant to small farmers and to create the conditions they need to transform their small plots into viable small businesses that make a vital contribution to local and national economies”.

According to Bodybobton, agriculture will continue to play an important role in economic development and poverty alleviation in developing countries in the era of economic liberalization and globalization. 

“As a result of this agriculture, the developing world must be made intellectually and economically rewarding by means of partnership with private players and entrepreneurs” argues Bodybobton adding that “efforts at diversification and commodity stabilization can be successful only if undertaken under viable international agreements. Empirical evidence on the terms of trade of the developing vis-à-vis the developed countries leave at least a presumption that they are not improving”.

 “At the global level the dependence of the developing world on agricultural exports creates many problems. As a result, for many crops, of which the supply is also inelastic in the short-run, the growth of export earnings is held to a relatively low level and prices fluctuate”, posits Bodybobton.

Cornelius Chikwama, in a 2014 research paper titled “Does Agriculture Play An Important Role in Economic Growth and Structural Transformation” acknowledges that agriculture has generally be seen as presenting opportunities for growth in developing countries. The size of the agricultural sector relative to the rest of the economy in developing countries implies growth of the sector has potential for large direct effects on economic growth and transformation of the national economy.

“Yet agricultural productivity in many developing countries remains severely constrained by technology and the wider infrastructure for connecting small-holder farmers to the agric-food supply chain.”, posits Chikwama.

He further explains that agriculture’s impact on the national economy also occurs through growth in consumption from farm households. Increases in agricultural output if associated with rising incomes will increase household spending and thus create demand on non-agricultural sectors. Resulting growth in non-agricultural sectors further raises demand in the economy and fuels growth further, what is generally referred to in economic terms as the “multiplier effect”.

The direct contributions of agriculture to the functioning and growth of the national economy have traditionally been reflected by its share in total value added, its foreign exchange earnings and its role in supplying savings and labour to other sectors. In many developing countries, agriculture has significant contributions to the size of the national economy – accounting for 25 – 30 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).

However, while agriculture-led growth has played an important role in reducing poverty and transforming the economies of many Asian countries, the strategy has not worked in Africa. Most African countries have failed to meet the requirements for a successful agricultural revolution, and productivity in African agriculture lags far behind the rest of the world.

The positive impact of agricultural growth on rural development was found to be strongest in countries where small farms dominated agriculture. Therefore, given widespread rural poverty and small-scale farming in Africa, the “conventional wisdom” supports a strong role for agriculture in African development.

The findings of the research indicate that while Africa does face many challenges unlike those faced by Asian countries, “there is little evidence to suggest that these countries can bypass a broad-based agricultural revolution to successfully launch their economic transformation”.

Another paper titled “Towards Agricultural Change” acknowledges that “today’s agriculture is at the crossroads. Climate change is impacting negatively on food production while there are expectations for the sector to meet a rise in demand of 70 percent to 100 percent within only 40 years. Failure to reach this target would further reduce food security, while success may commit the world to further warming by accelerating greenhouse gas emissions”.

The paper argues that agricultural systems need to change in the face of climate risks. In order to stabilize outputs and income, production systems must become more resilient, that is, more capable of performing well in the face of disruptive events.

Enhancing the capacity to manage climate risk is also a core adaptation strategy. There are many region – or – situation-specific climate risk management options that may also have adaptation value. Smallholder, crop, livestock and pastoral subsistence systems, especially those located in marginal environments, are often characterized by livelihood strategies that have evolved to reduce overall vulnerability to climate shocks.

Agro-ecological engineering will have to be developed, in particular through the increased use of genetic and species diversity at field and landscape scales, along with eco-technologies to adapt water management by improved water harvesting and water use efficiency , to monitor and reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to increase and verify soil carbon stocks.

It is also argued in the paper that a sustainable intensification of agriculture, that would allow the closure of yield gaps and an increase in biological efficiencies, especially in developing countries, can enhance food security and contribute to mitigate climate change by stopping deforestation and the expansion of agriculture into sensitive ecosystems.

More productive and resilient systems may also lead to beneficial side effects in term of carbon sequestration and reduction of greenhouse gases emissions per unit product. These multiple win-win options require changes in the management of biodiversity and natural resources.

At the Southern African Development Community (SADC) level it is observed categorically that “the agricultural sector is of major social and economic performance in the region, contributing in the different member states between four and 29 percent of GDP and approximately 13 percent of overall export earnings. A bout 70 percent of region’s population depends on agriculture for food, income and employment. Hence the performance of the sector has a strong influence on food security, economic growth and social stability”.

It is lamented that with changing climates and  forecasts for more arid conditions over the long term, sustainable agricultural practices are a forefront of the SADC regional efforts and the region supports the development of higher yielding crops and the adoption of efficient farming practices, such as soil and water management for key staples.

In the Botswana context,  the 2014 – 2016 Country Programming Framework for Botswana prepared by the government in conjunction with the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) acknowledges too that despite the impressive economic performance during the most of the independence period, Botswana’s agricultural sector’s performance “has been poor, recording low or stagnant growth in output and productivity”.

Botswana relies heavily on commercial imports and occasional donor support to feed its people who are food insecure, the majority of them being rural dwellers. The country is a net importer of most agricultural products, except beef and its by-products. In terms of food, the country is a net importer of food grains, a “domestic production has never been able to meet domestic demand except for the 2013/14 season where domestic grain production increased three folds”, and “at farm level, a great majority of rural dwellers depending on agriculture are net food buyers”.  

It is further acknowledged that despite the farming industry’s declining share of GDP, it remains vitally important to the economy and the agricultural sector has been identified as one of the areas “that have a great potential to diversify the economy and create employment in rural areas”.

The Country Programming Framework further confirms that 80 percent of the Botswana population is involved in agriculture that plays a very important role in the economy. The climate of the country is arid to semi-arid, thereby making cattle farming the main agricultural activity, which has resulted in Botswana being one of the major suppliers of beef to the European Union.

The United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP’s) Human Development Report for 2006 acknowledged that “farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa who are dependent on rain and its patterns will increasingly have to cope with unpredictable weather”. The report further highlights that water scarcity due to climate change tends to affect particularly poor rural women as every day millions of women and young girls walk miles to collect water for their families.

It is feared that according to the report that crop yields could in the future fall by as much as a third of more in some areas. For livestock, as drought periods become more frequent and longer, there will be less grazing for animals as they depend entirely on natural pastures. Climate is predicted to also bring extreme weather effects such as frequent floods. These wet episodes are likely to lead to frequent outbreak of diseases and hence a challenge to livestock farmers.

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