Journal Article

IDS Bulletin Vol. 36 Nos. 2

Success Stories from African Agriculture: What are the Key Elements of Success?

Published on 1 April 2005

Success is not a word often heard when dealing with contemporary issues in agriculture in sub Saharan Africa.

For 30 years, the overall picture has been one of failure. While other regions of the developing world have seen increases in agricultural production per capita, sub-Saharan Africa has seen a decline, the index falling from 114 in 1969–1971 to 97 for 2002–04, a 15 per cent fall over 33 years (data from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization Statistics (FAOSTAT)). Consequently, Africa has lost much of its share of international trade in agricultural produce, and has seen rising levels of food imports.

It is easy to sink into pessimism about African agriculture and ignore the longer historical record. Over two extended periods in the twentieth century, one from the start of the century until 1929, the other from the late 1940s until the early 1970s, African agriculture grew well ahead of population growth. In both periods strong demand for exports of tropical products was a driver, and both ended when primary commodity prices fell. Since the early 1970s episodes of notable growth have been less general, being specific to particular crops and regions, and sometimes short-lived. Rice in the inland delta of the Niger (Diarra et al. 1999), openpollinated varieties of maize in the middle belt of Nigeria (Smith et al. 1993), maize and cotton in Zimbabwe (Eicher 1995; Poulton et al. 2004a), horticultural exports from Kenya (Minot and Ngigi 2003), and peri-urban production of dairy, fruit and vegetables for the city of Kano (Mortimore 1993) are just a few of many examples.

Comparatively few attempts have been made to compare and interpret such episodes of agricultural growth. When carried out, two approaches have been followed. One has been to synthesise the findings from published case studies (Turner et al. 1993; Snrech 1995; Wiggins 1995, 2000), an approach that allows a wide range of factors to be considered with evidence gathered at district and village level – particularly useful when agricultural development takes place within complex natural and human systems. The other, also based on case studies, has been the International Food Policy Research Institute’s (IFPRI) study that asked more than 1,100 specialists in African agriculture to nominate up to three examples of success – from which they gathered 253 nominations from 118 replies (Gabre-Madhin and Haggblade 2001; Haggblade et al. 2003). From these they selected 11 cases for more detailed study. In both sets, a limitation is the relatively small number of cases reviewed – the largest sample, that of Snrech (1995), contains just 30 cases.

This article briefly summarises the findings from these overviews, and discusses their implications for policy-makers.

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This article comes from the IDS Bulletin 36.2 (2005) Success Stories from African Agriculture: What are the Key Elements of Success?

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Wiggins, S. (2005) Success Stories from African Agriculture: What are the Key Elements of Success?. IDS Bulletin 36(2): 17-22

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Steve Wiggins

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Institute of Development Studies
Wiggins, Steve


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