Sending the Hoe to the Museum: Promoting Sustainable Agricultural Mechanization in Africa

Dr. Patrick Kormawa Agriculture & Environment NEWS & ANALYSIS

The 25th African Union Heads of State and Government Summit in South Africa last June had the theme: “2015 Year of Women Economic Empowerment and Development towards Africa’s Agenda 2063”. As a result, several women-affiliated organizations attended side events organized at the margins of the summit. As participants in those pre-conference meetings, particularly Gender is my agenda and the High-Level Panel on Gender Equality and Women Economic Empowerment, the call for agricultural mechanization from women was loud and clear. Women clearly highlighted the effect on their health and the drudgery of the use of age-old hoes and other primitive farm implements, while portraying the ways in which the entire agricultural value chain is leading to youths in their communities deeming farming an unattractive prospect. At the summit proper, AU Chairperson Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma launched a campaign to “confine the hand-held hoe to the museum”. As a symbolic gesture, the Chairperson handed over a power tiller to each African Head of State and Government, with the hope that mechanization of agriculture in Africa will be achieved within the next 10 years.

African women are right to call their governments to action. On other continents, notably, America, Europe and lately Asia, agricultural machines have revolutionized agriculture and continue to do so today. On these continents, agricultural machines have led to significant increases in total factor productivity in farming. It is common knowledge that agricultural mechanization is a key and almost indispensable pillar for making farm operations efficient and productive. It a major factor contributing to the efficiency and productivity of all the other inputs used in crop production such as seeds, fertilizer, water, labour and time. It is therefore a pipe dream, if African agriculture remains dependent on primitive technologies and implements like the hoe and expects to feed the teeming population and play a significant role in the international market for value-added agricultural products. In this respect, modern agriculture in Africa would be impossible without advanced machinery solutions along the entire agricultural value chain.

Experiences from other developing countries have shown that investment in agricultural mechanization enables farmers to intensify production and improve their quality of life as well as contributing to national and local prosperity. In countries such as India, China, Brazil and Turkey, the rapid expansion in farm machinery demand has stimulated the growth of local machinery manufacture to the point where these countries are now major producers and world leaders in farm machinery exports. Much the same could happen in Africa, if African farmers could be helped to intensify their farming through increasing levels of mechanization. This would lead to improved land use, increased food production, enhanced rural prosperity and, on a national scale, greater export potential and less reliance on imports.

Level of agricultural mechanization in Africa

African agriculture remains substantially undercapitalized, with extremely low levels of mechanization contributing to agricultural productivity far below the level achieved in other parts of the developing world. It is estimated that over 60% of agricultural power is still provided by human power, mostly by women, the elderly and children. Where animals are used, about 25% of farm power is provided by animal traction, while only 20% of mechanization is provided by engine power. Furthermore, estimates from the World Band indicate that Africa’s average of 13 tractors/100km2 of arable land compares unfavourably both with the global average (200/100km2) and with the average for other developing regions such as South Asia (129/100km2).

Within the African continent, there are substantial differences in levels of mechanization between countries and regions. Agricultural mechanization is concentrated in those regions with high market demand, or where large-scale commercial farming predominates. North African countries have the highest concentration of agricultural mechanization with 108 tractors per 100km2 within the continent. In West Africa, only 13 tractors are available for the same area.

An assessment by the FAO of the growth rate in tractor numbers between selected regions of the developing world suggests that sub-Saharan Africa has been almost uniquely unsuccessful in increasing its level of agricultural mechanization over time, with the growth rate in tractor numbers being lower than comparable developing regions by a factor of 15 or more.

Advancing agricultural mechanization in Africa

The recent launch of a mechanization campaign by the African Union provides a renewed high level of interest in Africa to unlock the great potential of mechanization. In order to achieve this laudable aim, Africa must learn from its past mistakes in trying to mechanize agriculture. African countries have in the past put in place structures to promote agricultural mechanization. However, these efforts have mostly failed for several reasons. In particular, the structural adjustment programmes of the 1980s impacted negatively on the expansion and use of farm mechanization. Mechanization programmes were largely managed and controlled by the public sector, which did not put in place sustainability measures. The advent of the structural adjustment programmes and subsequent withdrawal of governments from activities in farm mechanization in most countries resulted in to the breakdown of the schemes in many areas.

Over the past two decades, there have been some positive developments in the manufacture and fabrication of some agricultural machinery in Africa. For example, some small-, medium- and large-scale enterprises are emerging in South Africa, Egypt and Nigeria. Such industrial activities constitute a potential for development of a dynamic capital goods sector for agriculture in the medium and long term. These industries could benefit from economies of scale and represent a potential for industrial expansion in Africa, provided they can be developed on a viable basis with the required capabilities to serve national, subregional, as well as the African regional market. There are also some informal rural livelihood industrial activities linked to agriculture in the Sudan, Namibia and Angola, among others, producing simple agricultural equipment and tools, which could play an important role in the development of the rural non-farm sector.

Another strong indication of the potential commercial opportunities that Africa’s agricultural sector has to offer is the increasing level of interest being expressed in the continent by emerging countries that have undergone their own Green Revolutions. Countries such as China, India and Brazil, armed with expertise, equipment and know-how from their own agricultural liftoffs, are keen to provide the continent with much-needed state-of-the-art equipment to kick-start mechanization.

What must Africa do to send the hoe to the Museum?

African governments need to take urgent action and adopt a fresh view of the role of agricultural mechanization in the continent. Analysis from across the continent shows that there are strong correlations between economic growth and mechanization of agriculture. Countries that have achieved economic growth and solved their food problems have also advanced to a higher level of agricultural mechanization, while countries with stagnating economies and deeper poverty have lagged behind in such mechanization. It is therefore imperative that African agriculture move away from centuries-old manual technologies towards more appropriate mechanized farm operation in highly selected areas and functions, leading to higher productivity. This shift would be especially beneficial in terms of power-intensive operations such as land clearing and farming in medium- and large-scale agriculture, as well as joint farming operations among smaller farms or in farm cooperatives.

As a first step in the goal of sending the hoe to the museum, the AU should spearhead the process of formulating an African Strategy for agricultural mechanization in close partnership with the Regional Economic Commissions and the private sector through a participatory process. This should lead to the definition of a coherent plan of achievable actions and programmes. The strategy should aim to increase sustainable levels of agricultural mechanization, focussed on effective and efficient public-private partnerships.

African countries must avoid past approaches whereby agricultural mechanization was pursued as an isolated strategy without a purview of the entire agricultural value chain and sustainability measures. Learning from past experiences, agricultural mechanization strategies must focus on local needs while being based on empirical analysis and firmly embedded in broader agricultural policy for agricultural and rural development. Noting the complexity of the agricultural mechanization value chain, it is important that policies incorporate incentives to facilitate cooperation and partnership schemes between public- and private-sector agencies and actors. In developing an agricultural mechanization strategy, African countries must take the following points into consideration:

1. Agricultural mechanization must be part of the overall agricultural transformation strategy, with the public sector policy providing a facilitating and supportive role. Policies must be defined at national level to create a favourable environment for private sector investment. Also, public sector and development partners must support farmer organizations through organization and training to take advantage of mechanization services.

2. Adapting strategy to local conditions is of the utmost importance. Most of Africa’s farmers reside in rural areas with small holdings and are constrained by low productivity, thus resulting in low purchasing power of farm machinery or ability to pay for mechanization services. In this respect, agricultural mechanization strategies should be promoted at community level with the state playing a facilitating role by investing in the first set of equipment with the aim of improving access. Communities should be encouraged to own and manage mechanization schemes through cooperatives, but at full cost recovery over time.

3. Investment in the entire agricultural value chain is required as promoting mechanization in isolation will lead to failure. This would require the formulation of national strategic agricultural mechanization and implementation plans, as well as coordination within and between governments and the private sector business initiatives in mechanization services. This should be complemented by a holistic investment approach addressing the key agricultural infrastructure, particularly irrigation, rural energy, roads and storage.

4. Promoting innovative financing of mechanization programmes would assist small-scale farmers/processors in purchasing agricultural machines, which requires high capital outlays that most cannot afford. In cases where mechanization services are provided, it is important that farmers/processors have access to credit facilities with favourable interest rates. Rural or agricultural credit mechanisms are necessary to provide the finance to farmers to buy the equipment they need. These mechanisms need to be strengthened or, where they are absent, put in place.

5. Research, extension and advisory services for proper and safe use of machines is vital. As with any new technology, African farmers/processors would require training in the use of new machines. Such training could be in the form of regular farmer field schools and/or on other forms of training where farmers can be familiarized with specific types of machinery. To ensure sustainability, a dedicated mechanization research and advisory service scheme should be put in place.

6. In order for any national mechanization programme to be successful, an effective infrastructure in the form of maintenance and repairs services, parts supply, fuel and lubricants is required. Thus, national mechanization schemes must ensure that support is provided for the establishment of the service and support infrastructures. There is some scope for promoting the effective utilization of agro-processing machinery and equipment, as well as repair and maintenance facilities on a national or sub-regional basis, based on economies of scale, where viable – this presents another business opportunity for private investors.

As African countries put in place policies and strategies to transform their agricultural sectors, structures to facilitate efficient mechanization schemes remain the missing link in efficient production, utilization, preservation and value addition. It has been shown from experiences in other developing countries as well as developed countries that agricultural mechanization is a viable economic activity.
With the new impetus being provided by the African Union, it is time for African governments to give priority to agricultural mechanization as an area for strategic investment. This requires pragmatic policies that encourage private sector investments in agriculture and public-private partnerships.

The UN FAO has accumulated and assisted many countries in Africa and Asia to elaborate their own agricultural mechanization strategies. Working with the FAO, African countries would not require the reinvention of the wheel; rather, they could learn from the experience gained and practices developed by the FAO elsewhere in the world to leap-frog their agricultural mechanization process.

Written by

Dr. Patrick Kormawa is the Sub-Regional Coordinator for the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) Sub-Regional Office for Eastern Africa. He is also the FAO Representative to the AUC and UNECA in Addis Ababa. He holds a P.h.D. in agricultural economics and has over 20 years experience in research, agriculture, policy and industrial development in Africa.