Africa’s agricultural revolution after 1980

Ton Dietz is a human geographer. He is Professor Emeritus of the Study of African Development at Leiden University and a former director of the African Studies Centre Leiden.
Jan Sterkenburg is a human geographer who worked at Utrecht University before joining the evaluation department of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs (IOB).

This blog was written in honour of Africanist geographer Jan Hinderink who turned 90 on 2 November and passed away on 10 December 2022.
UNICEF recently started a campaign to cope with ‘one of the worst emergency situations of the last forty years in Northeast Africa: food shortages as a result of climate change, conflicts, and the war in Ukraine’. Almost forty years ago, Routledge & Kegan Paul published a book in a series edited by the African Studies Centre in Leiden, in which this scenario of ever-lasting food crises in Africa was predicted: Agricultural commercialization and government policy in Africa, written by Jan Hinderink and Jan Sterkenburg (1987). It was re-released as an e-book by Routledge in March 2022. But is the ongoing image of food insecurity in Africa correct?

Cause for concern
The book focused on agricultural development of Sub-Saharan Africa between 1961 and 1981 and the purport of the book was worrisome. Although there were clear exceptions, in the eyes of the writers African agricultural development was going badly and could not keep up with the rapid population growth. The stagnating and in many areas deteriorating food production, as well as growing food imports gave cause for concern. The book was published after droughts in Western and Eastern Africa and after the famine in the Horn of Africa in the 1970s. It had also been a period of political turbulence, scattered civil wars and refugee flows. Moreover, the two oil crises of the 1970s had had a disastrous effect on the modernisation of agriculture in the oil-importing countries, while in the oil-producing countries of Africa it had resulted in a neglect of agriculture. There were also serious concerns about increasing soil erosion and the fact that Africa did not seem to be experiencing a Green Revolution like the one in Asia that had brought about major advances in agricultural production.

Failing government policy
In identifying causes of the deteriorating agricultural situation, all kinds of possibilities came up, but none of these seemed to be dominant, or it must be a largely failing government policy. Increasing urbanisation was primarily identified as a problem, and most governments in Africa kept urban food prices low and ransacked the countryside to fund other things. Export agriculture (coffee, tea, tobacco, rubber, cotton, etc.) had received attention here and there, but had often also had a negative effect on food agriculture. The book therefore argues for more government attention for food crop production in Sub-Saharan Africa and for a much higher priority for agricultural policy.

1961-1981: Looking back with the knowledge of today
Between 1961 and 1981 - the book’s reference years - the population of Sub-Saharan Africa had increased from 225 million to 379 million. The total agricultural production between those two years could not keep up: the total production of all arable products together (livestock and forestry are not often mentioned in the book) fell from 717 kilograms per capita to 700 kilograms (if we use the historical FAO figures; presented on the FAOSTAT website). The decrease was visible in almost all types of arable farming (including export agriculture) but especially in root and tuber crops, which dominated (and still dominate) weight volumes in Africa: cassava, sweet potatoes, yams, etc., and we also include plantains in this category. In short: the worrying picture in the book can only be further supported with the current data about that period. However, it should be noted that the book, and also this blog, refers to agricultural output per capita. Total production in the sector as such had increased between 1961 and 1981. But growth in output was less than the considerable population growth in that period.

1981-2020: Food farming much better than predicted in 1987
Indeed, some parts of Africa currently cope with a disastrous food crisis, and that feeds the image of ever-lasting food problems in the whole of Africa. However: Africa’s arable farming and especially food farming has gone uphill since 1981, while the population of Sub-Saharan Africa has continued to grow enormously. Between 1981 and 2020 Africa’s population increased from 379 million to a staggering 1093 million, almost tripling in number these forty years (and almost a fivefold increase from 1961).

Table 1 shows the key data for arable production. What we see is a reversal of the development for grains, root and tuber crops, and fruit and vegetables: production growth is (considerably) higher than population growth. And in absolute numbers the growth is quite spectacular. Africa’s food agriculture prospered between 1981 and 2020.

Table 1: Sub-Saharan Africa: Arable production in kg/capita, 1961, 1981 and 2020






Relative figures: green = increase; red = decrease. ‘All crops’ also include sugarcane, nuts, seeds and oil palm products, coffee, tea, cocoa, and non-food crops.

Food agriculture in Western Africa thrives, Eastern Africa is in trouble
The FAO gives data for four major subregions in Sub-Saharan Africa: Western Africa from Senegal to Nigeria; Middle Africa from Chad to Congo and Cameroon; Eastern Africa from Ethiopia to Madagascar; and Southern Africa as mainly South Africa and a few neighbouring countries. If we look at the regional data we can see major contrasts, and here we will compare Western and Eastern Africa, where most of Africa’s people live.

Table 2: Agricultural performance of Western and Eastern Africa compared: 1961, 1981, 2020: compared to population increases






Green = increase; red = decrease in production per capita. The population in Western Africa increased from 88 million in 1961, via 142 million in 1981 to 402 million in 2020; the population in Eastern Africa increased from 85 million, via 150 million to 444 million inhabitants (source: FAOSTAT).

If we compare Eastern and Western Africa, the agricultural performance between 1961 and 1981 gave cause for concern in both regions, but after 1981 Western Africa’s food agriculture thrived, while the food production situation in Eastern Africa is more problematic, particularly for roots, tubers and plantains. It is not strange that parts of Eastern Africa currently cope with a major food crisis, particularly in the Horn of Africa.

Spectacularly better than what was thought possible
The valid concerns about African agricultural development in the 1987 book were confirmed by a re-analysis of the current figures given by the FAO for the 1961-1981 period. After 1981, however, it is no longer justified to speak in crisis terms about African agricultural development as a whole. It has fared spectacularly better in absolute terms than what many observers regarded as possible in the 1980s. Also in relative terms, compared to the colossal population growth between 1981 and 2020, there is little cause for concern for Sub-Saharan Africa as a whole. But the positive news is mainly due to the developments in Western Africa.

Thanks to urbanisation
The improvement in agricultural production for Sub-Saharan Africa as a whole and especially in Western Africa can hardly be attributed to the national governments. Even though African countries in 2003 pledged to spend at least ten percent of their budgets on agricultural development (the ‘Maputo declaration’), for many African governments this remains a sham. In publications of the African Studies Centre for the ‘tracking development’ project (see e.g. the book Asian Tigers, African Lions, 2013), the positive agricultural development observed was mainly attributed to rapid urbanisation. Many farmers, food transporters and food traders have taken advantage (often without much government support and sometimes against government policy) of the soaring urban consumption and also of the emergence of an increasing urban middle class. In addition, many rural areas have started to benefit from greatly increased non-agricultural income (including the many new gold areas in Africa) and, on the other hand, from the huge remittances of migrants.
Interesting to note is that urbanisation has become much more pronounced in Western Africa (e.g. Nigeria 53% now) than in Eastern Africa (e.g. Ethiopia only 22%).

‘Telephone farmers’
Many wealthier city dwellers have started investing in agriculture and a nice expression has been invented for this: the ‘telephone farmers’: landowners who live in the cities and from there (using the spectacular rise of the mobile phone) they ‘manage’ their ‘caretakers’. All around Africa’s major cities, zones have been developed for fruit and vegetable cultivation, as well as for poultry, fisheries and milk production. Grains, tubers and root crops have also increased strongly in many places. Previous publications showed that about half of this was due to arable land expansion (at the expense of extensive grazing areas, forest and other nature and wildlife areas) and the other half through intensification. Not on the scale of Asia, but as an African form of Green Revolution.

What will have helped were the relatively favourable weather conditions in many areas of Africa after the droughts of the 1970s and 1980s. However, if weather conditions become problematic, like currently in the Horn of Africa, food crises are a result, added by the current crisis in food imports, due to the war in Ukraine.

From food imports to food independence?
It is obvious to anyone looking at the statistics of world trade that Africa has become more dependent on food imports in the last forty years (as the 1987 book also predicted). However, much of these imports is luxury food for a wealthy top layer that can easily afford to do so, besides the food aid to refugees through the World Food Programme. In recent years, there has been a major shift in the origin of food imports, and of grain imports in particular. In the last decade, Russia and the Ukraine have become the important suppliers instead of the United States, and the question now is, of course, how to proceed. There are increasing voices in Africa indicating that Africa should produce its own food and should not be dependent on the rest of the world.

It would be nice if there would be African geographers willing to write a new book complementing the book from 1987. It would be interesting to examine how a number of ‘reversals’ happened in countries that were the promising exceptions in 1987 (e.g. Côte d’Ivoire and Cameroon) and which subsequently experienced difficulties, but also vice versa, countries that were regarded as very worrisome in 1987 (Ghana, Ethiopia) and which subsequently became very successful. It is not enough to make this pioneer book from 1987 available as an e-book. The book deserves a sequel!

Photo: Demonstration of a new seed quality digital platform called SeedAssure in Kiboko, Kenya, September 2018. Credit: Jerome Bossuet/CIMMYT via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

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urban agriculture
food security
Agricultural development
Southern Africa
Eastern Africa
West Africa
Horn of Africa


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It is a very interesting piece in the sense that it takes a good historical view. Secondly, it raises methodological questions. For instance, there are researchers who have argued over the last few years that the Ethiopian agriculture has shown improvements. Have they applied rigorously the appropriate metrics?