If Africa does not improve its agricultural productivity, what would happen? 

Progress on poverty will be slow – much of its population will continue working in agriculture, and will earn very little in return. 

Africa will also need to grow a lot more food. First, because undernourishment rates are high. That food gap needs to be filled to end hunger. Second, its population will grow a lot over the coming decades. If yields do not increase, the continent will need to use more and more of its land for agriculture. 

Studies have shown that if progress on crop yields does not improve, the continent will lose large amounts of its natural habitat to farmland.9 In many countries across Sub-Saharan Africa, researchers estimate that cropland area could almost triple by 2050. This will come at the cost of wildlife: in these same projections, 10% to 20% of animal habitats will be lost.

But, it doesn’t have to be that way. Things can change.

All countries were once in the position that many African countries are in today. Take England, France or Italy as examples. Until two centuries ago more than half of the labor force worked in agriculture – similar to the African average today. During that period, agricultural output per worker was very low, and therefore most lived in extreme poverty.

That has changed dramatically: less than four percent now work in agriculture, and the amount generated per worker is much higher – at least 30 times higher – than across Africa today.

This was the result of a significant improvement in productivity. As we see in the chart here, the UK was also struggling with persistently low crop yields for most of its agricultural history. Average cereal yields were one to two tonnes per hectare – very similar to what many African countries currently achieve. Since then, yields have quadrupled as a result of improved seed varieties, fertilizers, and access to other inputs such as machinery and irrigation.

We see this same trend across Europe.

There are more recent success stories across other regions. Rapid improvements across China. The same in Brazil. And also massive improvements in some countries in Sub-Saharan Africa itself. In South Africa and Nigeria, for example, the agricultural value-added per worker has roughly tripled over the last few decades.

Crop yields might seem like an odd choice to pick as one of the world’s most pressing problems. But, if yields and labor productivity do not increase it will have far-reaching consequences for global poverty, and protection of the environment. For people and planet, it’s one of our most important problems to work on.

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