Research and innovation are critical in supporting smallholder and commercial farmers, especially in responding to new challenges of climate change, says Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development Minister Thoko Didiza.
“Both governments and the private sector should increase investments in research,” she told agriculture ministers from across the globe gathered in Rome this week for the Pre-Summit of the United Nations’ Food Systems Summit.
Inputs ranged from a need to improve the resilience of the global food systems amid the shocks of the current Covid pandemic to the need for increased investment in innovation and research to cope with climate change and combat hunger.
For sub-Saharan Africa, reducing hunger through agriculture development involves addressing numerous factors that have constrained the continent’s agriculture growth over the past decade.
This includes poor infrastructure and a much less talked about low levels of agricultural productivity, or low yield per hectare.
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South Africa is an exception from the continent, with notable improvement in productivity over the past two decades.
Private sector investments in higher-yielding seed cultivars and adoption of agricultural machinery are among the factors that enhanced agricultural productivity.
In the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, there are several reasons for lagging productivity in agriculture. One is low levels of investment in research and development (R&D), according to Didiza.
Sub-Saharan Africa’s agricultural R&D spending is equivalent to 0.38% of agricultural gross domestic product.
Understanding the reasons behind these low levels of government’s spending on agricultural research is complex. Still, primarily, it is the fiscal constraints within countries, as the available national budgets have to prioritise pressing needs such as health and education.
Another important consideration is the political economy reality of R&D. Its funding cannot be easily stolen and is not largely suitable for cadre deployment and theft through patronage networks.
In addition, the returns are only visible after 20-30 years, which is far beyond the immediate returns within a politician’s
term in office. This could, in part, be why sub-Saharan African governments have failed to allocate enough funding for
technological innovation and research.
South Africa’s exception has been made possible primarily by the private sector role players across the agricultural value chain. The agricultural market liberalisation in the early ’90s facilitated private-sector market participation, resulting in productivity gains.
Didiza’s message about the need for an increase in investment in innovation and research is appropriate for South Africa.
We have a dualistic agriculture sector – commercial and smallholder farmers – and strive to use technology to improve productivity among smallholder farmers. But the message is even more urgent and appropriate for sub-Saharan agriculture ministers.
One way of attracting private sector investment in their countries will mean reviewing a range of policies that made investors reluctant to participate thus far.
These include a need to relax regulations that hinder the adoption of improved seed varieties and improvement in strengthening of land rights.
Wandile Sihlobo is an agricultural economist.