Commercialisation Is The Key

With a growing number of countries, such as Malawi, Ghana and Rwanda, beginning to ramp up investment in agriculture to expand their production levels, investors, governments and aid organisations are focusing their attention on how to kick-start the single most important process for raising productivity levels: ‘mechanisation’. In agricultural terms, this signifies the use of […]


With a growing number of countries, such as Malawi, Ghana and Rwanda, beginning to ramp up investment in agriculture to expand their production levels, investors, governments and aid organisations are focusing their attention on how to kick-start the single most important process for raising productivity levels: ‘mechanisation’.

In agricultural terms, this signifies the use of agricultural machinery to mechanise agricultural endeavour, thus increasing farm productivity.

There is overwhelming consensus that mechanisation still has a long way to go in Africa. That is clear from figures which point to the fact that it is still overwhelmingly human manpower which drives agricultural production in Africa. For example, in Central Africa, 80% of worked land is cultivated manually and in eastern and southern Africa, this figure is 50%. In the 1960s, Tanzania’s charismatic former President, Julius Nyerere complained that while the world was using combine harvesters, his farmers were still using wooden ploughs to till the soil. It was in an effort to increase mechanisation that he instituted the Ujamaa policy of collectivisation, since individual plots were too small to allow for mechanical farming on a commercial level. The policy failed – but largely because of the severe lack of organisational capacity that became evident during the programme and the reluctance of farmers to leave their ancestral landholdings for pastures new. This failure also set back efforts elsewhere to opt for larger, more-mechanised farming despite the outstanding results from South Africa and Zimbabwe, where a small number of commercial farmers were producing more than sufficient quantities of food.

It was becoming clear that such large-scale changes in the traditional patterns of agriculture went beyond the use of better equipment and inputs – there were critical cultural, religious and social issues that also needed addressing. The failure to do so resulted in the disastrous ‘land liberation’ policies of Robert Mugabe in 2000.

Nevertheless, even when no such hindrances were present, efforts of various African governments and donors to accelerate the use of mechanisation inputs had, at best, had mixed results. The reasons for this are varied. One major contributing factor has been lack of investment. Compared with other regions, in the past African countries have not committed to serious investments in crucial agricultural infrastructure, such as irrigation.

This cannot be simply attributed to a lack of willpower or capital. Africa’s agricultural landscape is normally dispersed, rendering it more difficult to coordinate large-scale farming projects than in other places, such as India, China and Brazil, which have managed the feat.

According to experts, it has largely been governments that have attempted to take on the challenge, but the outcome has traditionally been uninspiring: “In many cases where governments established tractor-hire schemes to serve small-scale farmers, planning was very short term and management was poorly trained and poorly supported,” according to UNIDO’s Agricultural Mechanisation in Africa report. “Such schemes, although relatively few across the continent, failed miserably, denting the image of agricultural mechanisation in general”.

The mechanisation challenge that Africa faces becomes apparent when you consider tractor uptake in the region; tractors, as an indispensable tool for tillage and transportation, are a key piece of equipment for farming mechanisation. Research indicates that other developing regions have 10 times the number of tractors per unit of agricultural land as does Africa, where the number of tractors has barely increased in the last 40 years.

Africa is estimated to be home to less than half a million tractors, but this number would have to increase to 3.5m for Africa to stand any chance of catching up with other developing regions, according to UNIDO. A mechanisation drive to get tractor numbers to this point would thus, realistically, take at the very least a decade.

Similarly, figures indicate that Africa is some way behind in terms of irrigation farming; only 5% of Africa’s cultivable land is irrigated, in comparison with the rest of the developing world, where 30% is. The comparative count of pumps, diesel engines and other equipment for irrigation is also very low.

New enthusiasm for mechanisation

Yet certain countries have shown an impressive new appetite for mechanisation. In Rwanda, the mechanisation process is showing glimmers of a breakthrough – major tractor manufacturing companies such as Massey Ferguson and Ford now distribute their products in the Eastern Province, although numbers remain modest. Workshops have also begun to proliferate in the country in order to aid farmers with maintenance, upkeep and repair of their equipment.

Ghana is also making progress in this area, according to a recent report by the FAO. The number of imported tractors has risen in recent years, owing to the government’s mechanisation programme. Between 2004 and 2006, 3,000 tractors, mainly from India, China, Japan and Czech Republic, were imported – a trend that has continued with thousands more imported.

Encouragingly, Ghanaian farmers have shown great enthusiasm for such products and demand is high. The government has also introduced financial support structures to help farmers make purchases. Agricultural machinery is imported free of tax duties. Tractors are also subsidised and buyers have been able to space out their payments over three years.  

Similarly, in Mali, the former government imported an increasing number of tractors from India and subsidised their prices. Farmers that cultivate rice and cotton have also been given access to loans to buy mechanisation products.

Younger farmers have been targeted in particular – tractors have been supplied to young Malians at heavily subsidised and interest-free prices with the money payable over 10 years. Budding Malian farmers have also benefited from business plan training.

Local manufacture vital

Not all agricultural breakthroughs that the continent has experienced in recent years have been government-led. International organisations have also made contributions to improving mechanisation.

One area where they have made their mark is in irrigation. Their single most important contribution: the treadle pump. Its impact on farming in certain pockets of Africa has been significant. In Tanzania, the Participatory Irrigation Development Project has boosted farm income by 86%. In Zimbabwe, the EU-funded Maunganidze Irrigation Scheme also resulted a 200% hike in income levels for participants.

A common complaint of business-minded African enthusiasts is that discourses pertaining to African agriculture are often devoid of business focus and attention to the role, hopes and fears of crucial private sector investors.

But, according to experts, commercialism is key to success, and it is the role of non-commercial actors to facilitate its growth: “The main challenge is to improve the business climate for private entrepreneurs – including small farmers – to build up agriculture as a business. This means improving public infrastructure – roads, water, energy, telecoms – as well as more predictable and enforced policies governing agricultural inputs and markets,” says Steven Schonberger of IFAD.

Nonetheless, mechanisation still presents a number of challenges for investors. Firstly, equipment costs are still prohibitive for many farmers. Despite the efforts of importing companies to price equipment as competitively as possible, the cost remains stubbornly high, around double of that in Asia. There is also a dearth of companies providing spare parts in Africa, which means availability of these crucial products is also low and many farmers lack adequate training in how to operate and maintain them.

Experts recommend a number of measures to address this. They include boosting private sector investment in local manufacturing of equipment and spare parts  and providing formal training to farmers in the maintenance and operation of their equipment. 

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