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The region and its farming systems

The region7 (see Map) contains 626m people of whom 61 percent (384m) are directly involved in agriculture. Total land area is 2455m ha, of which 173m ha are under cultivation (annual and perennial crops) - about one quarter of the potential area. Arid and semiarid agro-ecological zones encompass 43 percent of the land area. In West Africa, 70 percent of the total population lives in the moist subhumid and humid zones, whereas in East and Southern Africa only about half the population occupies these areas.

Despite an abundance of natural resources, the regional GDP per capita was lower at the end of the 1990s than in 1970. Nineteen of the 25 poorest countries in the world are found in sub-Saharan Africa and income inequality is high. In East and Southern Africa, it is estimated that rural poverty accounts for as much as 90 percent of total poverty. During the past 30 years the number of undernourished people in the region has increased substantially, to an estimated 180m people in 1995-1997.

Fifteen farming systems have been identified and are summarized in Table 2.1 (see Map for their location). Given the number of farm households that may be encompassed by a single farming system, it is inevitable that significant heterogeneity exists within the broader systems and important subsystems can be identified in many cases. The five most important of these systems from the perspective of population, poverty and potential for growth are briefly described below.

Irrigated Farming System. This comprises large-scale irrigation schemes covering 35mha with an agricultural population of 7m. Irrigated production is supplemented by rainfed cropping or animal husbandry. Water control may be full or partial. Holdings vary in size from 22 ha per household in the Gezira scheme, to less than 1.0 ha. Crop failure is generally not a problem, but livelihoods are vulnerable to water shortages, scheme breakdowns and deteriorating input/output price ratios. Many schemes are currently in crisis, but if institutional problems can be solved future agricultural growth potential is good. The incidence of poverty is lower than in other farming systems and absolute numbers of poor are small.

Tree Crop Farming System. This is found largely in the humid zone of West and Central Africa and occupies 73m ha with an agricultural population of 25m. Cultivated area is 10m ha, of which only 0.1m are irrigated. It is dominated by the production of industrial tree crops; notably cocoa, coffee, oil palm and rubber. Food crops are inter-planted between tree crops and are grown mainly for subsistence; few cattle are raised. There are also commercial tree crop estates (particularly for oil palm and rubber) in these areas, providing services to smallholder tree crop farmers through nucleus estate and outgrower schemes. The incidence of poverty is limited to moderate, and tends to be concentrated among very small farmers and agricultural workers.

Cereal-Root Crop Mixed Farming System. This extends through the dry subhumid zone of West Africa, and parts of Central and Southern Africa. Total area is 312m ha with an agricultural population of 59m. Cultivated area is 31m ha of which only 0.4m are irrigated. Cattle are numerous - some 42m head. Although maize, sorghum and millet are widespread, root crops such as yams and cassava are more important. Intercropping is common, and a wide range of crops is grown and marketed. The main source of vulnerability is drought. Poverty incidence is limited and agricultural growth prospects are excellent. This system could become the breadbasket of Africa and an important source of export earnings.

Table 2.1 Major Farming Systems of sub-Saharan Africa
Farming Systems Land Area
(% of region)
Agric. Popn.
(% of region)
Principal Livelihoods
Irrigated 1 2 Rice, cotton, vegetables, rainfed crops, cattle, poultry
Tree Crop 3 6 Cocoa, coffee, oil palm, rubber, yams, maize, off-farm work
Forest Based 11 7 Cassava, maize, beans, cocoyams
Rice-Tree Crop 1 2 Rice, banana, coffee, maize, cassava, legumes, livestock, off-farm work
Highland Perennial 1 8 Banana, plantain, enset, coffee, cassava, sweet potato, beans, cereals, livestock, poultry, off-farm work
Highland Temperate Mixed 2 7 Wheat barley, tef, peas, lentils, broadbeans, rape, potatoes, sheep, goats, livestock, poultry, off-farm work
Root Crop 11 11 Yams, cassava, legumes, off-farm work
Cereal-Root Crop Mixed 13 15 Maize, sorghum, millet, cassava, yams, legumes, cattle
Maize Mixed 10 15 Maize, tobacco, cotton, cattle, goats, poultry, off-farm work
Large Commercial and Smallholder 5 4 Maize, pulses, sunflower, cattle, sheep, goats, remittances
Agro-Pastoral Millet/Sorghum 8 8 Sorghum, pearl millet, pulses. sesame, cattle, sheep, goats, poultry, off-farm work
Pastoral 14 7 Cattle, camels, sheep, goats, remittances
Sparse (Arid) 17 1 Irrigated maize, vegetables, date palms, cattle, off-farm work
Coastal Artisanal Fishing 2 3 Marine fish, coconuts, cashew, banana, yams, fruit, goats, poultry, off-farm work
Urban Based <1 3 Fruit, vegetables, dairy, cattle, goats, poultry, off-farm work

Source: FAO data and expert knowledge.

Maize Mixed Farming System. This is the most important food production system in East and Southern Africa, extending across plateau and highland areas at altitudes between 800m and 1500m. Total area is 246m ha with an agricultural population of 60m. Cultivated area is 32mha of which only 0.4m are irrigated. The main staple is maize and the main cash sources are migrant remittances, cattle, small ruminants, tobacco, coffee and cotton, plus the sale of food crops such as maize and pulses. About 36m cattle are kept. The system is currently in crisis as input use has fallen sharply due to shortage of seed, fertilizer and agro-chemicals, plus the high price of fertilizer relative to the maize price. The main sources of vulnerability are drought and market volatility. There is a moderate incidence of chronic poverty. In spite of current problems, long-term agricultural growth prospects are relatively good and the potential for reduction of poverty is high.

Agro-Pastoral Millet/Sorghum Farming System. This occupies the semiarid zone of West Africa and substantial areas of East and Southern Africa. Total area is 198m ha with an agricultural population of 33m. Cultivated area is 22m ha and pressure is very high on the limited amount of cultivated land available. Crops and livestock are of similar importance. Rainfed sorghum and pearl millet are the main sources of food, while sesame and pulses are sometimes sold. The system contains nearly 25m head of cattle as well as sheep and goats. The main source of vulnerability is drought, while poverty is extensive and often severe. The potential for poverty reduction is only moderate.

Key region-wide trends

HIV/AIDS has already depressed population growth rates, but total numbers are still expected to increase by 78 percent in the coming three decades, although rural population will rise by only 30 percent due to rapid urbanization. Total annual and permanent cropped area is expected to expand slowly in the years up to 2030, and with an average rise in crop yields of 60 percent and a slow rise in irrigated area and fertilizer use, production of all crops is forecast to more than double. Livestock production is projected to grow at a moderate rate due to expansion of urban consumer demand for meat, milk and eggs. Most agricultural production will continue to come from smallholder dominated rainfed farming.

Strategic priorities for Sub-Saharan Africa

Despite the fact that sub-Saharan Africa is relatively well endowed with natural resources, the incidence of hunger and poverty is greater than in other developing regions, while the population growth rate is higher and the number of poor is increasing at an alarming rate. Nevertheless, the policy, economic and institutional environment still does not create the necessary incentives for agricultural production. There is a continuing urban bias in development programmes and the supply of rural public goods is low. Efforts must be directed to support the intensification of productivity on the farms of poor households, as well as the diversification of production towards high return activities, especially in the high potential areas where a majority of the poor are found. The development of alternative livelihoods - both local off-farm employment and exit from agriculture - will be an important component of poverty reduction programmes, especially in the low potential areas.

Substantial benefits would be derived from a renewed focus on improved agricultural sector policies. Two major priority areas stand out in this respect: (i) resource user rights and (ii) long-term investments in public goods. Examples of the latter include: good land husbandry; sustainable natural resource management; soil and water conservation; environmental protection; mainte-nance of biodiversity; tsetse eradication; and, carbon sequestration. Farming systems with high growth potential are strongly constrained by a lack of services, including transportation and education. The challenge is to provide such public goods in a sustainable fashion, by ensuring that local authorities and communities contribute to their maintenance. It is necessary to develop productive partnerships between public, private sector and civil society, notably farmers' organizations.

In general terms, not only should non-traditional exports be promoted but there is also a need for a general focus on higher value products. Partial solutions include: diversification into non-traditional export crops; upgrading of existing export products to obtain the highest possible price (rehabilitation, improved processing); and a search for niche markets such as biologically produced items and African ethnic foods.

The abundance of natural resources in the region provides the basis for pro-poor agricultural development if the appropriate incentives are created. The analysis of major farming systems indicates the relative importance of household strategies to escape poverty - in order of importance: diversification; intensification; increase in farm size; exit from agriculture; and increase in off-farm income. In order to halve hunger and poverty by the year 2015, massive efforts are required to stimulate broad-based, inclusive growth, which ultimately depends on the initiative and effort of individual farm families within each farming system. Although it is impossible, based on the foregoing regional analysis, to prescribe specific national actions, the overall challenge of reducing hunger and poverty in the region demands five strategic, inter-linked, initiatives:

Sustainable resource management. Sustainable resource management must address widespread land degradation, declining soil fertility and low crop yields; it should result in soil recapitalization and improved resource productivity. Components include: farmer-centred agricultural knowledge and information systems to document and share successes; resource enhancements such as small-scale irrigation and water harvesting; participatory applied research focused on integrated technologies blending indigenous and scientists' knowledge, related to conservation agriculture, agroforestry, IPM and crop-livestock integration; and strength-ening resource user groups.

Improved resource access. Access to agricultural resources by poor farmers is intended to create a viable resource base for small family farms. Components include: market-based land reform; adjustment of land legislation; strengthened public land administration; and functional community land tenure.

Increased small farm competitiveness. Increasing competitiveness of small and poor farmers will build capacity to exploit market opportunities. Components include: improved production technology; diversification; processing; upgrading product quality; linking production to niche markets; and strengthening support services, including market institutions based on public-private partnerships.

Reduced household vulnerability. Household risk management will reduce the vulnerability of farm households to natural and economic shocks, both of which are prevalent in African agriculture. Components include: drought-resistant and early varieties and hardy breeds; improved production practices for moisture retention; insurance mechanisms; and strengthening traditional and other risk spreading mechanisms.

Responding to HIV/AIDS. Immediate action is required to halt the spread and impact of HIV/AIDS. Components include: information campaigns; a cheap supply of condoms; affordable treatment; land tenure reform to prevent widows losing access to, and control over, land and household property when their husbands die; agricultural training for AIDS orphans; and, safety nets to reinforce the efforts of rural communities to support AIDS orphans.

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