In order to raise agricultural land and labour productivity, to generate rural employment and make it more attractive and to achieve future growth and poverty reduction agendas, governments must embrace technological, policy and institutional innovation opportunities afforded by mechanisation.
Successful mechanisation along the value chain will have to be a priority in any future development and growth agendas for African smallholder agriculture. Its success depends on organisational innovations such as reliable services and cooperation arrangements for and with farmers.
Under the African Union’s 2014 Malabo Declaration, AU member states have explicitly committed themselves to making investments in ‘suitable, reliable, and affordable mechanisation and energy supplies’ in order to double productivity by 2025 (Commitment to Ending Hunger, 3(a)). In spite of this commitment, however, only a few countries have actually included mechanisation in their National Agriculture Investment Plans (NAIPs).
Benefits of specifically including mechanisation investment strategies in countries’ NAIPs include the development of the policy and regulatory frameworks that are necessary for incentivising private investment in the development, supply and maintenance of agricultural equipment and related technologies, in addition to facilitating the leveraging of public funds for mechanisation within agricultural value chains.
The failure to accelerate and sustain growth within the agriculture sector will have major impacts on African countries as well as on global food markets. By missing out on the opportunity to capture a larger share of the growing demand from continental and global agricultural markets, Africa will miss the opportunity to create wealth and employment opportunities. Currently, Africa is the continent with the least mechanised agricultural system in the world. African farmers have ten times fewer mechanised tools per farm area than farmers in other developing regions, and access has not grown as quickly as in other regions. 50-85% of farm work continues to be done manually, without the support of animals or machinery. Only 10% of total power for land preparation in sub-Saharan Africa comes from engine-powered machines, usually using fossil fuels.
Furthermore, the use and power of tractors in Africa has barely increased over the past 40 years. In 1960, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania each had more tractors in use than India. By 2005, India had 100 times more tractors in use than the three countries combined. In 1980, meanwhile, there were just two tractors per 1,000 hectares; by 2003 this had fallen to an average of just 1.3. By comparison, there were 7.8 tractors per 1,000 hectares in 1980 in Asia and the Pacific region – by 2003 this had jumped to 14.9.
On the other hand, substantial and visible progress and growth in some African countries and in some sectors is reason for optimism. However, more needs to be done to meet future food demands and to further accelerate agricultural transformation. It will, therefore, be crucial to analyse and address the technological, policy and institutional innovations that are required in order to improve agricultural land and labour productivity more quickly, as well as to learn from those African countries for which adoption of sustainable mechanisation has contributed to socially sustainable mechanisation pathways and agricultural growth.
Africa needs to further develop its own agricultural machinery industries in a way which makes use of the region’s inventiveness while also taking account of its specific contexts. The industry may grow as a mix of small, creative start-ups, some of which may work in partnership with established international corporations. The private sector can play a crucial role in bringing to scale the design, development, and provision of technologies that are proven to be impactful. Increased cooperation between the private sector and research institutions, meanwhile, is needed in order to strengthen domestic mechanisation efforts. This can be achieved by developing locally appropriate and affordable machines and technologies. Substantial investment in public-private partnerships must therefore be made in order to foster research and development, vocational training and skills development programmes, as well as to stimulate innovation along the value chain.
It is a promising sign, that between 2005 and 2014, several African countries were able to increase the uptake of mechanisation along the entire agricultural value chain; in this way they increased their agricultural output and generated new off-farm employment opportunities. Their experiences can help other governments develop country-specific mechanisation strategies and policies that favour collaboration between the private sector, research institutions and the governments themselves.