The British Empire Library

Agricultural Revolution in Africa

by Dr. R. G. Lowe

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by S.S.Richardson
As a lecturer in multiple land use at the University of Ibadan with a full twenty five years of field experience of West Africa, Dr. Richard Lowe is singularly well qualified to state the problems, to examine the issues and to advance proposals for consideration by all concerned in the determination of the way ahead for tropical agriculture in Africa.

Agricultural Revolution in Africa? is much more than a useful textbook for African students in universities and polytechnics in Africa south of the Sahara. This is a generally readable and informative compendium of urgent messages for the attention of politicians, administrators, officials employed by aid and technical assistance agencies, professional practitioners in rural development, land use, agricultural science and animal husbandry and, for all who have ever worked in Africa, and who feel frustrated and disappointed with the slow pace of African social, political and economic development.

I am myself humbled to read Dr. Lowe's extensive verbatim quotations from Lord Lugard's advice to colonial governments tendered so many years ago, which, if heeded, might have averted some of the traumas which now afflict farming communities in the African savannah. The symptoms of decay in traditional systems of agriculture were already there for all of us to see and to do something about but most of us, Africans and expatriates, saw them not and did nothing effectively to forestall the catastrophe which is now arising because Africa can no longer feed herself.

This is essentially a book about Nigeria, which has the largest population and economy in Black Africa and which still just manages to feed its rapidly growing population with the help of a cushion of oil revenues. Nigeria,] is quite likely to become the leader in the agrarian revolution which must occur in Africa as peasant farming makes way for "commercial" agriculture. In 1960, three quarters of the working population of Nigeria were engaged in subsistence agriculture. In 1985, it was estimated that less than half of a much larger population were still on the land.

The system of shifting cultivation and communal land tenure, which has served Africa well since the the beginning of time, is visibly breaking down. Traditional peasant practices, which have conserved the soil for generations, are being disregarded. Pressures of population and the need to provide staple foodstuffs, meat and firewood for rapidly growing numbers of urban dwellers and factory workers, have led to the overexploitation of land under cultivation, reductions in the acreage of traditional grazing grounds and afforested bushland and a shift away from the cash crops, i.e., ground nuts and cotton, which formerly were marketed overseas and which brought in foreign exchange. A succession of droughts and natural disasters, in part exacerbated by neglect of good practice, and volatility in international oil prices have contributed to the feeling that a crisis is at hand.

A transition from a peasant to an industrial society cannot be achieved without abandoning important parts of traditional culture. An agrarian revolution is inevitable but is not likely to be sudden or violent. Problems of land tenure must be resolved, farming has to be made profitable again and a fair return will need to be assured if there is to be the necessary injection of capital resources. Above all, there needs to be an "audience" of farmers "receptive to modern ideas and to experimental findings and capable of putting them into effect".

There may well be lessons to be learnt from a study of agrarian reform in Europe and the post war green revolutions in Asia but the revolution, when it happens, will be essentially African, labour intensive and geared to intermediate technology, to borrow a term from the late Professor Schumacher.

Dr. Lowe has charted the minefield which remains a most formidable obstacle in the way of furthering social and economic development in Africa south of the Sahara.

British Empire Book
R. G. Lowe