Filling the African Food Gap: Farm Mechanisation or Labourisation?

Author: Ahmed Salim Nuhu [PhD student at Michigan State University]

Among the greatest challenges African governments would have to deal with over the next decade is growing food insecurity. Left unaddressed, food insecurity will threaten domestic peace and stability in both fragile and relatively advanced democracies as hunger and starvation cause a wave of civil unrest and protests across the continent.  This is even more worrying as food production which has grown by only 13% over the past 20 years has failed to match an explosive population growth averaging over 70% around the same period in Sub-Saharan Africa[1].

On the supply side, climate change-induced drought and slow technology adoption are shrinking both quantity of output and the quality of food on a typical African dinner table. The effect has been an ever-growing food import bill which worsens balance of payment and exchange rate problems; further enforcing a vicious cycle of pass-through inflation and instability.

Unfortunately, policies and programmes aimed at increasing food availability such as ‘planting for food and jobs’ tend to target directing more labour into agriculture—what I call agric-labourisation rather than farm mechanisation. In Ghana, for example, agricultural employment stands at 44%[2] while its contribution to economywide productivity stands at just about 1.3%[3]—a contribution too small for such a big sector.

However, on a brighter side, agricultural employment share has declined by about 21% between 1992 and 2010. The loss of labour in agriculture means that more capital[4] is available per farmer— thus increasing productivity. Simultaneously, if those who have left agriculture find employment in more productive sectors, overall productivity would increase.

Indeed, as our computations show in the graph below, declining agricultural employment share has been associated with higher overall productivity growth in Ghana, parts of Africa and South-East Asia where poverty levels have declined significantly. However, in the face of global competition, manufacturing which has the potential to absorb the labour coming out of agriculture is increasingly shrinking while mining also remains highly capital-intensive and as such, is unable to absorb much of the ex-agricultural labour.

In effect, people coming out of agriculture have ended up on the streets of national capitals; engaged in retail trading and services provision where productivity is just as low or even worse. It is therefore unsurprising that current efforts at improving food supply aim to drive more people back into agriculture. However, the experience of the South-East Asian countries of China, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia etc. where millions have been pulled out poverty teaches us that such reforms must target sucking labour out of farms and putting on more machines to enhance productivity.


[1] Status of Food Security in Africa: UNECA: Ninth Session of the Committee on Regional Cooperation and Integration

[2] GLSSS Survey 2016

[3] Computed from the GCDS ten-sector database as the share of agricultural productivity in overall value added per labor for the year 2010

[4] Defined as all machinery and equipment available for farm work.

Put differently, we do not need 60 per cent of our labour force to feed the remaining 40 percent. In the United States, only 1.6 percent of the labour force provides food for both domestic use as well as exports[5]. In summary, I would argue that a more prudent long-term solution would be for government to activate the right environment to increase farmers’ access to credit and machinery while providing re-training opportunities for individuals leaving agriculture to re-position themselves for employment in other sectors. Also, while subsidies for farmers under these programmes are good for providing a spring board for production in the short-term, a more sustainable long-term approach will be for government to help set up markets that facilitate exchange of farm machinery and inputs with minimal government influence or interference.

-Ahmed Salim Nuhu

Details of the empirical computations underlying this article can be found in “Structural Change and Productivity Growth in Developing Countries” authored by Ahmed Salim Nuhu available at This work shall also be presented at the World Institute for Development Economics Research (UNU-WIDER) Conference on Migration and Mobility in Accra . Comments can be directed to the author through



  1. More power to your elbow! Agric mechanization is certainly key to solving food insecurity in developing countries instead of labourisation.


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