Africa’s Agricultural Input Landscape in Sub-Saharan Africa


COMMON WISDOM #1: African farmers’ use of modern inputs is dismally low. 

SCORE: 2 - Mythish


  • Chemical input use is not as low as is often assumed
  • Irrigation and tractor use is negligible
  • Input use varies strikingly within countries
  • Modern inputs are often not combined to reap agronomic gains
  • Input intensification is happening for maize in particular
  • Larger farms and plots receive inputs less intensively
  • Input application does not adjust to farmer-perceived soil quality
  • Few households use credit to purchase modern inputs
  • There are gender differences in input use
  • National-level factors explain bulk of modern input use variation

In sum, modern input use is not as low as is commonly believed, but there is room for considerable improvement, in both the level and method of input use. Although the conventional wisdom remains largely true, some movement is occurring on Africa’s agricultural input front.


The central message is that governments need to build on and learn from these achievements.  Our findings open up a range of important new policy research questions amenable to further exploration.


The issue:

Conventional wisdom holds that Sub-Saharan African farmers use few modern inputs such as improved seeds, fertilizers and other agro-chemicals, machinery, and irrigation. Is this true following several years of high food prices, concerted policy efforts to subsidize fertilizer and hybrid seed use, and increased public and private investment in agriculture?  This study revisits perceptions about Africa’s agricultural input landscape, using data from more than 22,000 households and 62,000 plots in Ethiopia, Malawi, Niger, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Uganda. Data were collected under the Living Standard Measurement Study–Integrated Surveys on Agriculture Initiative.  

Ten Takeaways

  1. Input use across Sub-Saharan Africa is more complex than prevailing beliefs and macroscale statistics suggest. Here are ten of the most striking newly verified facts:  Most smallholders in the countries studied use rudimentary technologies and eschew the use of modern inputs:
    • Two-thirds report no use of inorganic fertilizer.
    • Eighty-four percent do not use agro-chemicals.
    • Only 1 to 3% of land cultivated by smallholders is irrigated, and no more than 10% of households have any form of water control on agricultural plots.
    • Accurate data on the use of improved seeds remain hard to find.
    • Inorganic fertilizer use is significant in Nigeria (41% of households), Ethiopia (56%), and Malawi (77%), and one-third of households in Ethiopia and Nigeria use agro-chemicals.
  2. Tractor ownership is low, but less so in Ethiopia, Niger, and Nigeria, suggesting that community rental or sharing schemes facilitate mechanization.
  3. Within-country input use varies strikingly across subnational regions and agro-ecological zones, with the richer and—surprisingly—the less educated typically using more inputs.
  4. Although many modern inputs (particularly inorganic fertilizer, improved seeds, irrigation) perform best when used together on the same plot, most households do not so (see figure). Improved agronomic practices remain an important focus for extension services.


Venn diagrams of three-way input use in Ethiopia

5.       Input intensification is happening for maize in particular. Given that maize is not a cash crop, this finding is promising.

6.       The literature suggests that yields fall with farm size and that input use falls with farm and even plot size. Household-level factors (such as distance to market and household-specific price of inputs and outputs) cannot explain this puzzle, which requires further research.

7.       Farmers do not significantly vary fertilizer application rates according to perceived soil quality, raising another opportunity for gains.

8.       Less than 1% of households (except in Ethiopia) use formal or informal credit to purchase modern inputs, corroborating evidence about the weakness of agriculture input credit markets in Africa. Despite recent advances, much scope remains for deepening financial rural markets.

9.       Male-headed households apply, use, and own more modern agricultural inputs than female-headed ones. Closing this gap would help empower women and raise their income.

10.       Household socioeconomic status explains little of the inter-household variation observed in input use rates. Hence, policy tools can help increase the use of modern inputs.