How Technology and Innovation could Save Africa From the Malthusian Trap


A family of farmers in rural Niger (IFAD/David Rose)

A family of farmers in rural Niger (IFAD/David Rose)

With recent reports from the FAO that the Ebola outbreak could threaten West Africa’s food supply, it is easy to understand why Sub-Saharan Africa’s agricultural sector would be in urgent need of reform. If Ebola has proven to be such a threat to West African harvests, it is mainly due to the establishment of quarantine zones and the restrictions put on people’s movements, which have caused severe labor shortages in farms. However, this vulnerability stemming from the heavy dependence on manual labor, is not restricted to those countries struck by Ebola, it extends to the entire continent.

In Niger for example, the vast majority of the villages I have visited, share the same traits: farming is a family affair that often exclusively relies on individual family members for labor. Thus, part of the reasons families are so large in the country are tied to the belief that the more children they have, the bigger their labor force would be. With a fertility rate of around 7.1 births per woman – the highest in the world – Niger’s population is expected to increase from 17 million today to 50 million by 2050. This colossal fertility rate is also influenced by a similarly high infant mortality rate – 60 deaths per 1,000 live births – which leads parents to hedge their bets by having more children in order to attain their desired family size.

In addition to rapid population growth, the country suffers from low agricultural productivity. Indeed, women and children spend most of their days on the farm, putting in enormous effort for harvests that are often just large enough to feed the family and to bring in additional income. The dichotomy of high population growth and low agricultural productivity, as well as recurring droughts and famines in the past, are just some of the factors that have caused the country to struggle in its efforts to become agriculturally self-sufficient. A solution to this complex problem lies in an increase of investment toward technological innovation in agriculture, which would improve its productivity while decreasing the amount of human labor needed to run the country’s farms. With easier access to tractors, irrigation or improved seeds, farmers could quickly realize that their farms can produce more, with less dependence on children or women. In the long run, this could ultimately encourage lower birthrates in rural areas, and help keep children and especially girls longer in school. But what if technological innovation alone is insufficient? More generally, what happens when a country’s population increases too rapidly relative to its ability to produce food?

Economist Thomas Robert Malthus tried to answer this question in his 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population, where he argues that world population growth would eventually outpace food production. In his opinion, “the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man”. Thus, the Malthusian trap is the idea that regardless of productivity gains in agriculture and the use of more farmland, humans would eventually run out of food and succumb to famine. Any improvement in technology would only serve to further drive population growth and nothing else. Could he have been right? Isn’t Niger a perfect illustration of these predictions? The country does suffer from continuously high fertility, combined with low agricultural productivity and recurring famines. A look at how population growth and agricultural production have evolved relative to each other outside of Africa, might give us some clues as to what effect an increased productivity might yield in this context.

In the industrialized world, modern science and technological innovation have brought forth dramatic improvements to agricultural productivity. As a consequence, land size ceased to be a constraint, and humans slowly started producing more food on fewer acres of farmland. Moreover, Despite the productivity increase, these industrialized countries saw their birth rates fall continuously over the years, paving the way for societies with high food surpluses. Clearly, Malthus’ prediction that population would grow exponentially with sustained high birth rates and that food production would not be able to keep up with population size proved to be wrong.

Despite his erroneous predictions, there is still one thing that we can learn from Malthus: agricultural productivity is crucial to a society’s survival and economic development. Indeed, regardless of population growth, as long as a country can produce enough food to feed its continuously increasing population, it will thrive and avoid extinction. Africa’s potential in terms of food production is immense, with vast reserves of under-utilized land. Investing in new technologies for the small portion of farmlands currently being exploited is the quickest way to improve productivity and help drive up food production. This strategy has successfully been implemented in other parts of the world. For example, data shows that between 1990 and 2004, OECD countries have increased their volume of food produced by 5 per cent, while at the same time reducing the land area farmed by 4 per cent. Unfortunately, over the same period, Africa has seen little investment in agriculture.

In 2003, African Union member states met in Maputo and committed to allocating 10% of their national budgets to agriculture over the next decade. Ten years after the Maputo declaration, all but 10 member states have failed to meet this target, further demonstrating that agriculture is often an afterthought in many governments’ development policies. To boost farm productivity, African governments must not only invest in technology, but should also improve infrastructure and other elements crucial to agriculture. In his book “The New Harvest: Agricultural Innovation in Africa”, Harvard International Development professor Calestous Juma argues that “Africa will be able to feed itself in a generation provided it can invest in infrastructure, higher technical training and promote regional trade”. He further notes that energy and telecommunications are also important elements that governments should strive to improve in order to change the face of African agriculture.

Sadly, many of the elements that Juma deems crucial for agricultural productivity are also underdeveloped in several African countries. Making them an integral part of the broader agricultural reforms will be a key element to success.

Ultimately, investing in agriculture would not only dramatically increase food production, but would also help drive down fertility rates in countries where agriculture mostly relies on manual labor. Moreover, in the long run, the improved agricultural productivity would also greatly contribute to a reduction in malnutrition-related infant mortality. With less infant deaths per family, the number of births needed to attain the desired family size will also decline. By leading to higher crop yields and lower birth rates, innovation has the power to help Africa steer away from the Malthusian trap and embark on the road to development.

Sani Mahamadou is a graduate student at the Harvard Kennedy School. He focuses on technology, economic development and social entrepreneurship. Connect with him on twitter @sanimhm

Sani Mahamadou
Sani Mahamadou