Ugandan seed distributors aren’t adulterating seeds, it’s probably a problem of handling and storage

This is from a new paper by Alicia Barriga and Nathan Fiala in World Development:

Results from the tests showed very high levels of DNA similarity (above 98%) and good performance in general, but highly variable quality in terms of the ability of the seed to germinate under standard conditions. We do not see differences in average outcomes across the distribution levels, though variation in seed performance does increase further down the supply chain.

ugandaseedsThe results of the tests point to potentially important issues for the quality of seeds. The variation in germination suggests that buying a random bag of seeds in this particular distribution chain can matter a lot for farmer’s production. The high rate of seed similarity suggests that the main concern among policy makers and researchers, that sellers add inert or low-quality material to the seeds, is likely not the case, at least for the maize sector in the districts we study. However, given the remoteness of these districts and the lack of any oversight in these areas, we believe the results are likely a lower bound for the country as a whole.

The supply chain analysis suggests that the quality of seed does not deteriorate along the supply chain. The quality is the same, on average, across all types of suppliers after leaving the breeders. However, we observe high variation of seeds’ performance results on germination, moisture, and vigor, suggesting that results are more consistent with issues of mishandling and poor storage of seeds, possibly related to temperature or quality controls, rather than sellers purposefully adulterating seeds. Variation on these indicators is usually associated with mishandling during transportation and storage.

As the authors note in the paper, African governments and their external donors have put a lot of effort in “certification and labeling so as to reduce the possibility of adulteration by downstream sellers”. Obviously, e-labels and systems of verifying seed authenticity in the fight against adulteration are important. But equally important is an understanding of how the seed distribution system works. And that is one of the major contributions of this paper. Corruption is not always the problem.

Read the whole paper here.


Interestingly, Uganda bests both Kenya and Tanzania on productivity in the cereal sector (I made the graph using FAO data). Despite starting off with relatively lower productivity and having gone through civil conflict beginning in the late 1970s, Uganda has since around 2007 clearly separated itself from both Kenya and Tanzania (and appears to have plateaued). Productivity in Kenya peaked in the early 1980s and has pretty much stagnated since. Tanzania’s figures appear to be trending upwards having collapsed in the early 2000s. There is likely an element of soil quality and general aridity involved in these trends. According to the FAO, Kenya and Tanzania use fertilizer at significantly higher rates than Uganda. For comparison, cereal yield in Vietnam is about 2.7 times higher than in Uganda.


How Good Are Datasets on Cropland in African States?

A number of papers (on agricultural productivity, conflict, food security, and impacts of climate change, for example) use cropland cover data as controls. How good are these data?

Here’s the abstract of a paper (open access) from Wei and co-authors:

Accurate geo-information of cropland is critical for food security strategy development and grain production management, especially in Africa continent where most countries are food-insecure. Over the past decades, a series of African cropland maps have been derived from remotely-sensed data, existing comparison studies have shown that inconsistencies with statistics and discrepancies among these products are considerable. Yet, there is a knowledge gap about the factors that influence their consistency. The aim of this study is thus to estimate the consistency of five widely-used cropland datasets (MODIS Collection 5, GlobCover 2009, GlobeLand30, CCI-LC2010, and Unified Cropland Layer) in Africa, and to explore the effects of several limiting factors (landscape fragmentation, climate and agricultural management) on spatial consistency.cropland

The results show that total crop-land area for Africa derived from GlobeLand30 has the best fitness with FAO statistics, followed by MODISCollection 5. GlobCover 2009, CCI-LC 2010, and Unified Cropland Layer have poor performances as indicated by larger deviations from statistics. In terms of spatial consistency, disagreement is about 37.9 % at continental scale, and the disparate proportion even exceeds 50 % in approximately 1/3 of the countries at national scale.We further found that there is a strong and significant correlation between spatial agreement and cropland fragmentation, suggesting that regions with higher landscape fragmentation generally have larger disparities. It is also noticed that places with better consistency are mainly distributed in regions with favorable natural environments and sufficient agricultural management such as well-developed irrigated technology. Proportions of complete agreement are thus located in favorable climate zones including Hot-summer Mediterranean climate(Csa), Subtropical highland climate (Cwb), and Temperate Mediterranean climate (Csb). The level of complete agreement keeps rising as the proportion of irrigated cropland increases. Spatial agreement among these datasets has the most significant relationship with cropland fragmentation, and a relatively small association with irrigation area, followed by climate conditions. These results can provide some insights into understanding how different factors influence the consistency of cropland datasets, and making an appropriate selection when using these datasets in different regions. We suggest that future cropland mapping activities should put more effort in those regions with significant disagreement in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Here’s what they did:

…. we compared the spatial agreement of cropland to assess the consistency of five datasets in the same location. These datasets were overlapped to generate a new composite map revealing whether and where the original datasets agreed on the same locations (Yang et al., 2017). Pixels of the composite map were assigned values ranging from 0 to 5. The highest value 5 represents the complete agreement, where all five datasets were consistent in cropland identification for a pixel. As the value decreases, spatial consistency between these crop-land datasets decreases. The lowest value with value 1 means that only one dataset identifies the pixel as cropland.cropland_cover

The best consistency of five datasets occurs in Egypt, with the complete agreement value of 47.86 %, while the highest disagreement is in Western Sahara, whose spatial disagreement is 91.08 %.

The earth might be getting greener

This is from NASA:

greening.png… the greening of the planet over the last two decades represents an increase in leaf area on plants and trees equivalent to the area covered by all the Amazon rainforests. There are now more than two million square miles of extra green leaf area per year, compared to the early 2000s – a 5% increase.

“China and India account for one-third of the greening, but contain only 9% of the planet’s land area covered in vegetation – a surprising finding, considering the general notion of land degradation in populous countries from overexploitation,” said Chi Chen of the Department of Earth and Environment at Boston University, in Massachusetts, and lead author of the study.

China’s outsized contribution to the global greening trend comes in large part (42%) from programs to conserve and expand forests. These were developed in an effort to reduce the effects of soil erosion, air pollution and climate change. Another 32% there – and 82% of the greening seen in India – comes from intensive cultivation of food crops.

H/T Max Roser

Africa’s elusive green revolution

This is a great piece on the subject in The Economist:

Screen Shot 2018-11-01 at 2.04.41 PM.pngSomething akin to Asia’s rural development may, at last, be happening in parts of Africa. Since 2002 the proportion of African workers employed in agriculture has fallen from 66% to 57%. Yet the real value of agricultural production has grown at an average pace of 4.6% a year, double the rate between 1970 and 2000. Even so, the region is lagging behind. Most of the increase comes from using more land, rather than improved productivity.

A good deal of the divergence in agricultural productivity after the 1970s is driven by African states failure to increase the use of fertilizers.


More broadly, smart policy to increase agricultural productivity must focus on market reforms (to ensure most of the surplus in the sector goes to farmers and to intensify financialization), rationalization of farm subsidy regimes, addressing the question of farm size (increasing urbanization may reduce the political cost of land consolidation in the region), and investing in logistics to reduce wastage between farms and markets (including transportation and storage).


Is Ethiopia in the midst of a green revolution?

This is from Bachewe and co-authors in World Development:

Screen Shot 2018-03-14 at 8.34.44 AMDespite significant efforts, Africa has struggled to imitate the rapid agricultural growth that took place in Asia in the 1960s and 1970s. As a rare but important exception, Ethiopia’s agriculture sector recorded remarkable rapid growth during 2004–14. This paper explores this rapid change in the agriculture sector of this important country – the second most populous in Africa. We review the evidence on agricultural growth and decompose the contributions of modern inputs to growth using an adjusted Solow decomposition model.Screen Shot 2018-03-14 at 8.35.03 AM We also highlight the key pathways Ethiopia followed to achieve its agricultural growth. We find that land and labor use expanded significantly and total factor productivity grew by about 2.3% per year over the study period. Moreover, modern input use more than doubled, explaining some of this growth. The expansion in modern input use appears to have been driven by high government expenditures on the agriculture sector, including agricultural extension, but also by an improved road network, higher rural education levels, and favorable international and local price incentives.

The improvement in agricultural productivity was driven, in part, by deliberate state investment in agriculture:

Ethiopia is one of only four African countries to have implemented the CAADP agreement of a 10% target of annual government expenditures going to agriculture over the 2003–2013 period.

… The GoE has for a long time put agriculture at the center of its national policy priorities. The Agriculture Development Led Industrialization (ADLI) strategy was formulated in the mid-1990s to serve as a roadmap to transform smallholder agriculture in the country. Rural education and health, infrastructure, extension services, and strengthening of public agricultural research were among its top priorities.

These gains are remarkable (if we can trust the state statistical agency data used in the analysis). They are also likely not replicable in other countries across the Continent on account of the high variance in state capacity in the region.

For instance:

[while the] Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) proposed that African countries allocate 10 percent of their total annual budgets toward boosting agricultural productivity…, only 13 countries [have] signed the CAADP compact (Benin, Burundi, Cape Verde, Ethiopia, The Gambia, Ghana, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and Togo).

And out of these 13 only Cape Verde, Ethiopia, Ghana, and Rwanda seem like they have the capacity to translate state fiscal outlays into real productivity gains in agriculture.

Read the whole paper here.

Is Africa water scarce?

Not really. At least according to this piece from the Economist.


The problem has always been getting the water to the people. Too bad good old-fashioned water and sanitation cannot be leapfrogged.


selective unconditional convergence and growth

Rodrik has a finding that reinforces the importance of politics and other macro conditions for economic development. He points out the existence of the paradox of unconditional convergence at the industry level but not at the national level. Rodrik stresses the importance of structural change that channels labor into the right industries. To this we should add political change that provides certainty and the requisite legal and physical infrastructure for economic growth.

Industries that thrive in poorly run places – like telecoms, banks and construction firms in Nigeria or Kenya’s retail giants – do so despite their governments. Non-existent roads, underdeveloped railway systems, sporadic and expensive electricity, bad schools, legal uncertainty and massive amounts of political risk all serve to limit the extent to which within-industry gains can be extended to other sectors.

The massive uptake of mobile telephones across Africa suggests that consumerism in SSA is alive and well, just under-exploited. Sectors like textiles, agriculture and construction remain largely untouched because of cheap imports and bad regulation.

Development is a complex enterprise that requires massive amounts of (implicit) coordination. There has to be a link between California’s Silicon Valley, Massachusets’ Route 128 and New York’s Wall Street, in addition to other growth clusters. In this game synergy is King. The provision of the legal, human capital and physical infrastructure to facilitate coordination of this scale is largely dependent on well-functioning governance structures.

Here’s Rodrik.

Poor countries have access to new technologies already developed elsewhere so should grow more rapidly than richer economies. This is one of the implications of standard growth models, as well as of common sense.

But in reality, there is no automatic tendency for economic “convergence” among countries at different levels of income. Convergence depends instead on a number of additional determinants. It is only those developing nations with the “appropriate” preconditions – for example, adequate schooling or physical investment – that manage to absorb new technologies sufficiently rapidly and therefore to catch up. In the language of growth economics, there is conditional convergence, but not unconditional convergence.

When we look at the same question at the level of individual industries rather than countries a surprising finding emerges. Suppose we focus on, say, plastics, furniture, or the auto industry in developing countries. Does productivity in these (and other) industries experience automatic convergence with the technological frontier? Or is convergence once again conditional, depending on a host of country-level variables?

The interesting (and I think new) finding is that productivity convergence appears to be unconditional at the industry level – at least for manufacturing industries and for the period since the 1980s.

economic matters

The 20th World Economic Forum on Africa has been meeting in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Participants at the forum stressed the need for the Continent to move to the centre of the global economy. The emphasis on agriculture was particularly encouraging. Food, textiles and construction should dominate the Continent’s Planning Ministers’ agenda.

The need for urgency was best illustrated by one participant who described the modern African farmer as still being “the woman with a hoe, firewood on her head and child on her back.” The same participant also made note of the fact that 80% of food production on the Continent is done by such women.

More of this here.

Also, the Atlantic has this nice piece on Sino-African (or is it Afro-Chinese?) relations.

Development and how to achieve it

A while back I argued for a move away form small scale, “pro-poor” development strategies to more robust development strategies aimed at economic innovation and large-scale job creation. This is not to say that micro-development should be neglected. What I am saying is that jua kali kiosks will not increase Africa’s per capita income to 10,000 USD. The most they do is enable people to cope without really changing their standard of living.

Alkags, a blog I just discovered, deals with this debate.

Aid watch also has videos from a conference at the Yale law school on development. Chris Blattman and William Easterly are some of the featured development experts. Blattman makes some interesting comments about micro-finance, industrialization (medium to large farms) and development.

Quoting Blattman: “I think we have gone too far in the pro-poor direction…… we don’t necessarily have trade-offs. Factories are pro-poor.”

this seems really cool

An African youth volunteer program just got launched in West Africa. The BBC reports that “The scheme would see youths spend time helping out in areas such as agriculture, health or education in a different country to their own.”

Read more here

gettleman does it again

Do not get me wrong. Jeffrey Gettleman’s story on the famine in Kenya is as important as any other article on a humanitarian disaster. It is his delivery that sucks. In typical Gettleman fashion (more about his style here and here), the article is full of sensationalism that does not belong in the Times. He goes way out of his way to depict all Kenyans as hapless, passive victims of the weather and their ineffectual government.

“The aid community here has been predicting a disaster for months, saying that the rains had failed once again and that this could be the worst drought in more than a decade. But the Kenyan government, paralyzed by infighting and political maneuvering, seemed to shrug off the warnings.”

Lines such as these are meant to convey the message that ordinary Kenyans – meteorologists and even some civil society organizations or even the Kenyan media – have had nothing to say about the famine that is affecting the country. It is the do-gooder foreigners who know it all that have warned the intransigent government. It is the same foreigners who are expected to send in food aid to help the dying Kenyans. Nothing is ever said about local initiatives to mitigate the disaster. That would give agency to Kenyans, and nobody really wants to read about that.

Instead we are told that “Turkana men are abandoning families, simply vanishing into the desert because they cannot face the shame of being unable to feed their children.” And the story would not be complete without the mention of tribal conflict. So even though it is obvious, and quite rational, that in times of acute scarcity there would be conflict over resources – and even Mr. Gettleman acknowledges this – there is still subliminal hints to an irrational ethnic conflict between the Turkana and the Pokot. Again, nobody wants to hear about rational people fighting over resources. No, being in northern Kenya is like “stepping back in time.” The place is full of starving people who engage in irrational tribal wars. This is the much more sexier story.

May be I am holding Gettleman to too high a standard. After all he is an American lacking enough knowledge of local conditions to appreciate the nuances involved even in the midst of such disasters. But he is the Times’ bureau chief and because of that people take what he writes seriously. There must be a more humane way of telling the world about the problems afflicting the inhabitants of the arid and semi arid parts of Kenya.

africa’s population – the economist’s view

The Economist has two interesting pieces on the demographic trends in Africa. The first article notes that the fertility rates on the continent are finally beginning to come down. The second one discusses the chances that Africa will take advantage of the democratic dividend and execute its own green revolution.

As I have argued before, there is a great deal of economic sense in bringing population growth on the Continent under control – at least until people’s life options have been increased enough so that they can make well informed choices on the number of offspring to have. The usual critics of family planning measures – the Church and conspiracy theorists – should take some time to visit slums or rural homes in which overburdened, dis-empowered daughters of the Continent with little or no economic wherewithal run

will agriculture save africa?

The Atlantic Monthly has a piece on the looming global food crisis – the world population is set to hit over 9 billion by 2050 while grain yields have not been increasing at the rates they used to in the latter decades of the 20th century (Will Malthus ever be right? God forbid!).

The article posits that Africa, with its rather dismal performance in the agricultural sector, presents a good opportunity for the increase in grain yields to add to the global food basket.

check out the short piece here.