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Extensification Versus Intensification: Revisiting the Role of Land in African Agricultural Growth

Guy Blaise Nkamleu, African Development Bank, Tunis

The consensus in international economic development circles is that agricultural growth in Africa is the cornerstone of the Millennium Development Goal of an annual growth rate above 7 percent a year required to achieve economic convergence with other developing countries, and to maintain a similar quality of life. The agricultural sector can improve the level of production either by using more input – mainly land (extensification) and/or by improving technological level. All these put together and harnessed determine both agricultural and economic growth in Africa.

African farmers have traditionally pursued shifting cultivation in response to population growth and declining soil fertility. Rural population growth and displacement, due to urban expansion and the gazetting of parks and protected areas, have long encouraged the cultivation of new land by extending farming into forests, wetlands, hillsides, and pastures. However, in much of Africa the extensification path is rapidly becoming unsustainable or impractical as land grows scarcer in the face of population growth.

The present paper revisits the extensification-intensification paradigm in the African agricultural context, and explores the ability of land use pattern and technological progress to keep up with population growth. Using macro panel data downloaded from FAOSTAT, the focus of the study is on investigating whether the production structure of the agricultural sector has changed during the last decades. In particular, the study sheds light on the state of land use in the agricultural sector, and estimates how much growth in output is associated with growth in land area and other physical capital, and how much growth is due to total factor productivity.

Results suggest that the contribution of factor inputs on agricultural growth has been globally larger than that of total factor productivity. In relation to land resources, we found that agricultural land expansion is increasing and the system is getting closer to the limit. The African agricultural sector still follows an extensive and unsustainable production pathway. Although declining, the contribution of land increase on the production growth is still quite high. The study also highlights the extent to which land use pattern and agricultural growth contributors has varied over time. The paper ends by drawing implications for policy targeting in the context of the food crisis and the need for a more greening agriculture.