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publication October 2, 2019

Productive Diversification of African Agriculture and Effects on Resilience and Nutrition


Photo credit: Cecil Bo Dzwowa/shutterstock

The "triple burden" of malnutrition is a public health challenge throughout sub-Saharan Africa, where high levels of undernutrition and micronutrient deficiencies in rural areas occur alongside increased overnutrition and obesity in cities. Climate change is a major driver of food insecurity on the continent: In 2018, 237 million people in sub-Saharan Africa were undernourished.

Many countries rely on the production of one crop for national food security.  Maize is one of the dominant crops in sub-Saharan Africa, covering a large share of total agricultural area harvested in many countries, specifically in Southern and Eastern Africa.  Subsequently, staple crops like maize account for a large share of food consumption.

A recent World Bank report, ‘Productive Diversification in African Agriculture and its Effects on Resilience and Nutrition’ explores whether specializing in the production of one crop negatively affects household nutrition outcomes and climate resilience. It also studies how countries can diversify their agricultural production towards a broader range of crops.

Main messages:

  • On-farm diversification provides greater dietary diversity for direct household consumption. But when it comes to smallholder incomes, it is important to find the right level of diversification since beyond an optimal level, diversification’s positive benefits on farm income diminish.
  • Both on-farm diversification and specialization of crop production can improve a household’s resilience to climate-related risks, but diversified production systems mean a more resilient agroecosystem.
  • Diversification can generate savings due to its positive effects on the agroecosystem, which reduces the need for production inputs such as fertilizer or pesticides.
  • On-farm diversification and specialization should be seen as complementary: While individual farms often increase productivity and competitiveness through specialization, the diversification of actors, and composition of produce at the community or landscape level provide access to diversified nutritious food products, income streams, and employment opportunities.
  • Demand for nutritious food and its resulting benefits is driven by the food environment. Nutrition education, awareness-raising and making nutritious food easily available is critical to improving nutrition in Africa.

The study also identifies several measures that support farmers’ production decisions and focuses on the impact of policy measures and public expenditure in sub-Saharan Africa, which often relate to large-scale agricultural input support programs and have resulted in increased on-farm specialization. This report highlights that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for fostering diversification and provides a selection of policies available to governments that can promote or constrain diversification, including:

  • Governments should revise input support subsidies and public expenditure if they favor a single commodity and consider designing agricultural input support programs that allow for the acquisition of a broader range of inputs and services; and limit their direct market interventions by means of sales and purchase of staple crops. Government interventions should only be allowed for the purpose of maintaining strategic reserves.
  • More efforts should be directed towards creating an enabling environment for market functioning by putting the right institutions and regulations in place (e.g., on standardization, provision of weather and price information, competition, trade finance, or dispute settlement mechanisms), but also by enhancing physical investments and supporting rural-rural and rural-urban transport connections and service.
  • Invest more in agricultural research and development focusing on practices, technologies and services that are gender, climate and nutrition-sensitive, as well as providing agricultural advisory services, training and timely and relevant information, tailored to different types of farmers.
  • Intensify nutritional awareness advocacy and educational programs to maximize consumption of nutritious foods from both own-production and market purchases.
  • Review land and water tenure policies and laws, with the aim of ensuring equitable access to, and tenure security over productivity-increasing natural resources for smallholder farmers.

The report was developed together with Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the International Centre on Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), as well as the Indaba Agriculture Policy Research Institute (IAPRI).