Agricultural mechanization and agricultural transformation in Africa

September 29, 2016
The paper discusses the current state of agricultural mechanization in Africa and its potential contribution to agricultural and broader economic transformation. It reviews the factors likely to influence farmer demand for mechanization in Africa and details different existing and potential mechanization supply models. Although an empirical analysis of mechanization demand and the effectiveness of supply chains is beyond the scope of this paper, in part due to data limitations, this paper suggests that demand for mechanization may be emerging in some parts of Africa. It also suggests that private sector-driven supply models are better positioned to meet this demand than direct government involvement and certain types of subsidized programs. The paper then identifies possible areas for government support to complement private sector leadership in developing mechanization supply chains.

A renewed focus on agriculture’s potential contribution to economic transformation in Africa has resulted in increased attention paid to agricultural mechanization. Nevertheless, African agriculture still relies predominantly on human muscle power, in contrast to other developing regions that have experienced rapid increases in agricultural mechanization over the past few decades. Efforts to promote mechanization in previous decades largely consisted of state-led interventions, which failed due to the lack of demand for mechanization among farmers (Pingali et al 1987).

This paper attempts to overcome some of the misconceptions that drove these programs by reviewing definitions of agricultural mechanization and its role in agricultural intensification processes. The paper draws on Boserup (1965) and Ruthenberg’s (1980) theory of agricultural intensification and Hayami and Ruttan’s (1970, 1985) induced innovation theory. According to this framework, agricultural intensification is driven by increased population pressure and rising demand for agricultural products, which prompt the need for the adoption of existing and the development of new labor-saving technologies, in the form of mechanization. Thus, mechanization can be expected to be adopted by farmers when the appropriate conditions arise and would not be profitable in the absence of such conditions.

The paper discusses the effects of farm size, labor saving, market demand, the availability of complementary technologies, and demonstration on developing demand. It also describes the sequential nature of mechanization demand as postulated by Pingali et al. (1987) in which power-intensive operations (plowing, threshing and harvesting) are mechanized before control-intensive ones (planting, weeding, winnowing) and animal power (where feasible) is adopted before the transition to mechanized power. As a result of the components and sequences of demand, it predicts that demand for mechanization in Africa is expected to exhibit significant spatial variation, meaning that existing national surveys and other data may fail to accurately capture patterns of demand.

The analysis in this paper suggests that where demand has emerged, the private sector has been relatively responsive to meet this demand. Private dealers tend to import the types of machinery demanded by farmers, for which markets for spare parts and repairs may be relatively developed, while governments tend to import the brands of machinery accessed through concessional loans, which do not possess these advantages. The paper however shows that, government importation and subsidization of machines may produce distortionary effects on the private importation and distribution channels. Similarly, individual machine owner-operators appear to have an advantage over government-subsidized service-provision enterprises, as they are usually able to achieve higher utilization rates in addition to obtaining benefits from using machines on their own farmers.

Despite the apparent advantages for the private sector in machine distribution and service provision, there are significant roles for African governments to play in promoting mechanization. Perhaps the most significant of these roles is providing public goods, including infrastructure, technical R&D, and economic research. Other potential roles include capacity building, removing distortionary policies, facilitating access to credit and formulating viable strategies. However, the private sector is still better positioned to drive mechanization in areas where demand has emerged and government policies should aim to play a facilitative and supportive role.

Despite a history of disappointment, agricultural mechanization may finally be in position to contribute to agricultural transformation in some parts of Africa. Demand for mechanization appears to have emerged in certain systems and, where it has, the private sector has often demonstrated its potential to efficiently supply machines and hiring services. However, the evidence base surrounding mechanization in Africa is still quite limited. Significant further research is required to better understand the changing nature of mechanization demand in Africa and the extent and effectiveness of different supply models in meeting it.

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