Published online 7 April 2011 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2011.219

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Rise in African agricultural research spending hampered by instability

Report finds that many countries are reliant on temporary loans.

farmingSpending on agricultural R&D is uneven across sub-Saharan Africa.Andy Aitchison/In Pictures/Corbis

Spending on agricultural research and development (R&D) across sub-Saharan Africa has risen substantially over the past decade. But investment in some countries is still too low to improve rural development and reduce poverty, warns a report published today.

After a decade of stagnation in agricultural spending in the 1990s, region-wide funding grew by 20% between 2001 and 2008, according to data from the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington DC, which published the report.

"This growth sounds impressive, but it hides cross-country differences. Spending in some countries has stagnated or fallen since the turn of the millennium," says Gert-Jan Stads, a programme coordinator at the institute and one of the report's authors.

The study analysed agricultural R&D spending and human resource capacity across 32 nations in sub-Saharan Africa.

It found that the lion's share of spending comes from just a handful of countries. Nigeria spent the most: US$404 million in 2008, up $110 million since 2001. Seven other big national spenders invested more that US$50 million each in 2008; South Africa was among them at US$272 million, but its investment levels actually declined by $12 million over the study period.

The rise in spending is spurred by efforts to re-establish agricultural R&D systems after periods of political unrest, and by national commitments to develop agriculture in general as a means of reducing poverty and improving food security, the study says.

But growth slowed in 13 nations, which has left some research institutes severely weakened. The declines were predominately in francophone countries in West and Central Africa, such as Gabon.

Collaborate and diversify

The report urges national governments to address underinvestment to ensure improved agricultural output. More support for basic science, as well as training and recruitment of the continent's future scientists, should also be a priority. The study calls on governments, funding donors and researchers in the region to collaborate more closely to achieve agreed targets for agricultural R&D spending and reducing poverty and hunger.

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Researchers should also diversify their sources of funding, for example by collaborating with the private sector. Private spending represented just 2% of all agricultural funding in 2000, and most of this was in South Africa.

Many countries are "extremely dependent on unstable inflows of donor funding and development bank loans", the study warns.

In some nations, the completion of large donor-funded projects, and the subsequent withdrawal of funds, has "precipitated severe financial crises, seriously undermining any progress made", it says.

Calestous Juma, an international-development researcher at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, says, "No country has ever been able to sustain agricultural growth without consistent R&D funding."

"Africa's agricultural R&D suffers from fundamental structural weaknesses that need to be addressed. The most important weakness is the low level of university participation in research," he adds. 

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