Africa can rapidly close the economic gap with the West

May 30, 2013

In the coming years Africa could experience a favourable turnaround and move away from poverty. A number of historical factors that until now have hindered a rapid agrarian transition is quickly being eliminated. But there will not be a green revolution in Africa like the one we have witnessed in Asia since the 1970s. The intra-African variation in ecological conditions and historical development trajectories is too large and rapid agrarian change is likely to enhance inequality and migratory flows. That is what Professor Ewout Frankema said on 23 May when accepting the chair of Professor of Agrarian and Environmental History in Wageningen University.

History shows that large have flourished as a result of effective strategies for collecting, producing or trading food. In his inaugural address "Africa and the – A Historical Perspective," Professor Frankema noted that with agrarian surpluses, armies can be fed, cities built and treasuries filled. Historical development in the West took place in this way. The Asian Renaissance took place likewise in the second half of the 20th century, something that is primarily associated with rapid industrial development but which was preceded by an impressive increase in the production of food. Are we going to witness the same happening in Africa, now that the economy on the continent is growing while the size of the population is increasing even faster? That is the question that Frankema addressed in his augural lecture.

Up to now Africa – or to be more specific, Sub-Saharan Africa – has lagged behind compared to the economic development of the West and Asia. To put it more forcefully, in many African food production per head of population has decreased in comparison with 1960. Due to the ecological conditions, agriculture in large parts of Africa is necessarily extensive. These circumstances are rather different from the optimal conditions in which the Asian green revolution occurred.

Nevertheless Frankema warns against environmental deterministic thinking. The potential that has become available in the last twenty years in terms of industrial technology and mechanical power is enormous.

According to Frankema, people are justified in pointing out that the driving force behind the Asian green revolution derives from central governments. Especially in Africa, state-building has been weak, in part because of the colonial background. The strengthening of central government power has so far been a laborious process because of low population densities and high population mobility of farmers engaged in shifting cultivation and nomadic pastoralists.

These conditions are currently changing very rapidly:

  • There is a revolution going on in the field of transport and communication as a result of which physical distances are dissolving; and because information is directly available, commercial farmers are gaining better access to markets.
  • The population increase and urbanisation raise the demand for food and a growing middle class is able to pay higher prices for food.
  • In terms of macroeconomics, the prospects for many African countries are much better than they were 20 years ago. The debt position of is considerably lower than that of Western countries. Moreover, in contrast to the 1930s and 1970s, most economies in Africa are sustaining growth during a period of economic decline in the West.
  • Finally, the rules of the political game on the continent are changing: both the rise of an urban culture and the fact that politicians are taking more and more account of the will of the voters are likely to result in favourable institutional changes.

Nevertheless Professor Frankema does not expect an Asian green revolution being repeated in Africa. The differences in historical lines of development between the various regions on the African continent and the large differences in the strength of central government power mean that some countries have a greater chance of escaping poverty through growth than other countries. He is is -more optimistic about the countries along the West African coast, such as Ghana, Senegal and Benin, and fairly compact countries with relatively intensive land use such as Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda, than about countries in the interior such as Niger and Chad or large colonial constructions such as the DRCongo, Sudan or Nigeria. The African green revolution is thus likely to increase inequalities within the continent and cause migratory flows between the countries to increase.

Ewout Hielke Pieter Frankema (born in 1974 in Opeinde in the province of Friesland) studied economics and history at the University of Groningen. He obtained his his doctorate degree for a study of historical income and asset in Latin America. Before coming to Wageningen he held the post of assistant professor at the Humanities Faculty of Utrecht University. For his work he received both a VENI and VIDI subsidy from the Dutch Science Foundation (NOW) and an European Research Council Starting grant.

Professor Frankema's research focuses on a better understanding of the long-term history of development regions (Africa, Latin America and Asia). He is a member of the Wageningen Young Academy.

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