Global pressures on rural Africa

Despite rapid urbanisation, most of Africa's population is rural - and this number is growing. Dependent on agriculture and pastoralism, we cannot ignore the harsh impact the globalisation and market liberalisation is having on their livelihoods.

Lyuba Golovina Catherine Boone
26 July 2017

A farmer at work in Kenya's Mount Kenya region. Source: Neil Palmer(CIAT)/Wikimedia Commons

This interview is part of the series 'Development in the Face of Global Inequalities'. You can find out more about the series, read its articles and explore the interactive roundtables by clicking here.

If you walk into a supermarket in a Sub-Saharan Africa city, one of the first things you might notice is how familiar it seems. You’ll find the same brands of chocolate, imported rice and coffee you would normally buy in your own supermarket back home. What does seem strange though, is how few local products are for sale. If Africa holds half of the world’s unused fertile land, why does it import $25 billion worth of food each year? And as Africa becomes increasingly integrated into world markets, can we really say that everyone's a winner?

This is what I planned talk about with Catherine Boone, a Professor of Political Science at the London School of Economics (LSE). Having worked for many years in Kenya, Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana and Tanzania, her research focusing on property rights, land tenure and territorial politics in Africa, she is just the person to speak with about the effects of globalisation and market liberalisation on populations in Sub-Saharan Africa.  

As we sit down for the interview, Catherine points out that one frequent misconception about Africa’s development is that despite rapid urbanisation, most of the region's population is rural, and continues to grow. In Kenya, for example, the rural population is projected to reach 30 million over the next three decades, a trend also visible in Tanzania and Cote d’Ivoire. This means that across Africa, most people are involved in agricultural and pastoralism to sustain their livelihoods. But here’s the catch: as rural populations increase, rates of technological innovation in agriculture remain slow, so the pressure on land is mounting. So, I was curious to know, what is the effect of globalisation when it comes to rural livelihoods? Catherine approaches the question from the perspective of a typical farmer.

“Some of the very dramatic ways in which livelihoods have been shaped by globalisation is through the liberalisation of national markets for agricultural produce. What that means, is that 20 or 40 years ago, if you were a rice, maize or millet farmer, you could produce, then consume and sell part of your produce in the local or urban markets and the money would be a major contributor to your family’s annual earned income.”

But now, Catherine explains, even though most of the population is dependent on farming, market liberalisation essentially throws open the gates for cheap food from the international market to flow in. These are the kinds of policies that were imposed by neoliberal structural adjustment reforms across Africa in the 1990s. Market liberalisation works well for developed countries that have already managed to lower production costs to export goods at competitive prices, but this was not the case for African farmers. Suddenly, farmers in Ghana or Senegal selling rice on the domestic market found themselves in direct competition with cheaper rice imports from South East Asia or the United States. As a result, foreign competition threatened local agricultural commodities markets and left hundreds of thousands of farmers at risk of losing their incomes.

Internally, there’s also the question of economic competition over land as land-to-person ratios steadily decline. Catherine mentions that her work over the last 10 years seeks to explain the role of government in structuring the rules, laws and arrangements by which people gain access and hold land. Political scientists often assume that growing pressure on land leads to conflicts, but Catherine’s research counters this assumption.

“It’s a false idea to expect that just because there are more people conflict will break out. In most places, there are clear hierarchies of control around land, there are winners and losers to that, but there are clear rules the government enforces and backs up. This contrasts with areas without clear governments hierarchies or where authority is not recognised. Governments give and take land more directly, more arbitrarily. When you have a lot of political churning, contestation and instability, this can translate into instability in land holding arrangements on the ground.”

So then, I ask, with the external pressures of globalisation and the internal pressure on land, what is the best course of action for these countries to take, is there a solution? Catherine emphasises the need for governments and institutions to balance food imports with pricing policies to support livelihoods for rural producers. This would require governments to impose taxes and other restrictions on imports in a judicious way that supports farming, which unfortunately is an unlikely course of action for opportunistic or unstable governments.

As our conversation draws to an end, I'm left wondering about how we ended up with a system where institutions on the other side of the world define the rules that shape the livelihoods of ordinary farmers. As the example of Africa and many developing countries has now shown, it is just as important to prevent bad policy decisions by international institutions as it is for governments to implement good policies locally. 

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You can read Catherine's answers on the Politics of Inequality Roundtable here.

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