Skip to content

Promoting The Green Revolution in Asia As Solely Technology Driven: A Major Disservice to Africa

While it is very true that Asia has benefited from a major green revolution in rice production, leading to most Asian counties becoming self-sufficient in rice and other food production. It is WRONG to attribute this success solely to technology development mostly in the form of high yielding varieties and it is misleading and a major disservice in promoting a similar green revolution for Africa only through technical advances. While it cannot be denied that IRRI (The International Rice Research Institute) developed high yielding varieties that increased the potential rice yields several folds, there were other things concurrently taking place in Asia that facilitated the wide spread acceptance of the new varieties and accompanying technical advances. Most noticeable the smallholder farmers on their own and without any financial assistance from the development community quietly shifted from using water buffalo to small Japanese 12-15 HP diesel power tillers. This more than halved the time to establish the rice crop, bringing at least twice as much land into the timely establishment required to take full advantage of the new high yielding varieties. Thus, while IRRI did an excellent job of increasing the yield potential of rice, it did not get the crop planted in time to take full advantage of the improved rice technologies. This was left to the farmers. Unfortunately, since the development community was not involved in the shift to power tillers, instead were basically oblivious of the shift, they simply ignored it and arrogantly took credit for the full impact of the green revolution.

The underlying problem is the limits of agronomy. Small plot research, which is the basis of agronomic development, does an excellent job of determining the physical potential of an area or technical innovation. However, it says nothing about what are the Operational Requirements for producers to extend that technology from the replicated small plot trials or demonstrations, perhaps at most 0.1 ha, to the rest of the field, farm or smallholder community, which is typically 1 to 3 ha/farmer. It just assumes it is not a problem. Sorry but it is, particularly in limited mechanized smallholder communities that are predominate across Africa. The problem is that the operational requirements of an innovation in terms of labor, access to mechanization, etc. has fallen into an administrative void between the agronomists and the social scientists trying to assist smallholder farmers. Who within a development project is responsible to determine the labor or other operational needs, the availability of these needs and what are the rational compromises the farmers should make when these are not fully available?

The best that I have seen is economists in their cost benefit analysis can usually come up with the labor requirements and the cost of the labor, but not the availability. Nor the more important concern as to what are the rational compromises to recommendations in terms of timing, plant population and quality of land preparation or weeding etc., when these operational needs are limited. Please note that most of these operational needs are more community variables rather than household variables, in contrast to the emphasis on households as the economic unit for smallholder development. Ultimately, no one is conceptualizing on the operational needs for community wide implementation of innovations. Not the Agronomists, not the Economists, not the Sociologists and not the Anthropologist. Please someone step into this administrative void!! The results might be very interesting with a substantial positive impact on smallholders!! Until someone addresses this void most agronomic innovation requiring additional labor will go for naught. At this point IRRI adds to the disservice as, when promoting the Institute, it prefers to show the water buffalo as more picturesque than power tillers. True, but it also illustrates that IRRI is some 30 years out of touch with it’s primary beneficiaries, and highlights the continued lack of conceptualization on the operational restrictions facing smallholder farmers.

So, what was the impact of the shift to power tillers and other mechanization on the rice production and the green revolution in Asia and how should that guide developing a Green Revolution for Africa? It may not have much impact on potential yield, at least not that you could demonstrate in a typical small plot research trial. The major impact would be on timing of crop establishment minimizing the well know declining yield potential associated with time of planting (TOP) delays, enhancing food security, and allowing for crop diversification and intensification. At this point it must be noted and appreciated that water buffalo or cattle are biological entities subject to fatigue that could limit their work day to about 4 hours and they require about an hour or more of labor per day for feeding and other needs. Thus, in rainfed areas, such as NE Thailand where crop establishment must be integrated with surges in rains and curtailed during lulls in the rains, with water buffalo the crop establishment might stretch for 4 months for a 6 rai (1.5 ha. farm) with continuous TOP declining yield potential, and often it is not completed as for those paddies planted 4 months after the on-set of the rains, the rains will end prior to harvest resulting in paddies being left fallow except for years with exceptionally good rainfall. Once the power tillers were introduced the time was reduced to 2 months and the task completed without leaving land fallow. With this rice production and food security assured, the smallholder farmers spontaneously diversified into aquaculture with poultry suspended above, or specialized vegetable cropping for the Japanese market, among others. No external facilitation or value chain promotions required.

As for irrigated areas no need to diversity, but the possibility to intensify. With the land preparation time halved it become a comfortable fit for annual double cropping rice. Then when the introduction of small Japanese combines with a 2 – 3 m head that could combine a rai (1/6th) ha. an hour for hire, farmers could intensify to 5 crops in 2 years. In both cases it is also possible to increase the area managed to 20 rai  or more, or doubling the previous norm of 9 rai or 1.5 ha. The power tillers tend to be individual farmer owned and can easily be enhanced to add pump attachments for low lift irrigation, and trailers for transport. Water buffalo remain in the system but most are too small for draft use. Instead they are small cow/calf operations that when sold for meat at approximately 2 or 3 years will earn about US$2.00/day. The buffalo meat is preferred for the noodle soap such as Vietnamese Pho. Power tillers are also slowly making there way into the rice schemes of Africa. In a return visit to Madibira, a 3000 ha. rice irrigations scheme in southern Tanzania, five years after the advisory and facilitation contract ended, there were some 50 Asian power tillers in use. All individually owned and financed by the farmers.

If you accept, what my international economics professor many decades ago proclaimed, that before a country can successfully industrialize, there needs to be a surplus of rural labor. Didn’t these countries, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, etc. become referred to as the Asian Tiger Economies back in the 1980s? Was this largely the result of the shift to power tillers generating the rural labor surplus that allowed the industrialization to take place or at least expedite the process? To the degree this is correct that would be a fairly massive impact of something mostly overlooked by the development community. This may have also resulted in some interesting land tenure in which land ownership continued to fragment as inheritance was distributed over all siblings but operational units consolidated as those drawn to the industrial opportunities share cropped their land with other siblings remaining in rural areas. How often shortly after harvest to people visit their home villages and return with some bags of paddy or rice? Was this their share of the crop managed by another sibling?

Shifting to Africa, there is no reason a green revolution cannot be just as successful in Africa as it was in Asia, including the prospects to create a rural labor surplus to stimulate increased industrialization. However, all the lesson of Asia must be applied to Africa, for which the operational limits are considerable more critical, as African agriculture was traditional more manual. Thus, if the operational limits are overlooked, my definition of the effort is GENOCIDE. I hope that is provocative enough to get the attention it deserves. However, unfortunately, if the expectation is for farmers to work harder, it is too close to the truth to be overlooked as they are already maxed out to the Limits Their Caloric Intake will allow. I doubt if this is really intended and accept is as initially an oversight. The explanation is that to manually cultivate a hectare of land requires some 300 diligent person hours, mostly man as they tend to be physically stronger than women, exerting up to 300 kcal/hr., which when added to the 2000 kcal/day of basic metabolism requires a diet exceeding 4000 kcal/day. However, the typical diet of most smallholder farmers in closer to 2000 to 2500 kcal/day marginally meeting the 2000 kcal/day basic metabolism and allowing only a couple hours of diligent land preparation type manual work, perhaps paced over a longer period but with limited diligence. This than extends the crop establishment period to 8 weeks or more with TOP induced rapid decline in potential yields, so that it is virtually impossible for farmers working only with hoes to meet their food security needs.

While you might at the household level be able to demonstrate, and probably have many time over with much fanfare of success, a better more recommendation consistent yield result, how often is this the result of, to use a Christian expression, robbing Peter to pay Paul. That is if the demonstration depends on hired casual day laborers and the hired labor happens to be other farmers, as is often the case, so that Paul, receiving the extra labor, is promoted out of poverty, but Peter who contributed the labor at the expense of his own land management is push further into poverty in what community wide is a zero-sum output. At this point it must be recognized that while we work with individual farmers and households, the need is and always has been acceptance across the whole community.

If you think about it, how ridiculous is it to expect poor hungry smallholder farmers working alone or perhaps assisted with some immediate household family members to establish their hectare or hectare and half of crops, with the same ease the research plots or extension demonstration can for their 0.1 ha. trial, aided with an adequately feed paid labor force, even with a limited developing country experiment budget. If someone really wants to promote a green revolution for Africa and not address the operational needs and dietary requirement of the smallholders my inclination is to refer them to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague for advocating, conspiring and promoting the Genocide of the smallholder as a Crime Against Humanity as it implies people are expected to work well in excess of their available caloric intake. While initially this could be accepted as an oversight, now having been informed of the possibility, if not addressed it become deliberate and thus subject to referral and prosecution by the ICC.

Unfortunately, the current emphasis on improved nutrition, emphasizing pregnant and nursing women, are not effectively addressing the issue of dietary requirements associated with the limited and mostly manual economic opportunities of smallholder or other beneficiaries. That overlooks the importance of the dietary requirements for the beneficiaries’ economic opportunities needed to afford or produce the improved diet being promoted, and perhaps the need to make some major Hard Choice compromises in balancing the diet to individual beneficiaries’ economic circumstances. Thus, the nutrition effort remains mostly academic and needs to be Integrated into the beneficiaries’ economic reality to become a viable development effort.

Thus, it will be very difficult to have a wide ranging and sustainable green revolution in Africa unless you follow the unheralded example of Asia and make some form of mechanization available in Africa. However, the individually owned power tiller is most likely not the answer for Africa as it was in Asia. The power tiller is excellent in paddy where larger tractors have problems with grit getting into front wheel bearing, wearing them out in what is a frequent US$400 Repair. The power tiller is less effective in upland area where there is no water to lubricate the tines and they more quickly wear out the tines than in paddy use. For upland areas the preferred mechanization is 4-wheel 65 to 80 HP tractors equipped with 3 or 4 bottom disc plows. These of course are too expensive and not appropriate for individual smallholder ownership so the access needs to be via contract through private service providers. However, this can be very sensitive and needs to emphasis Individual Owner/Operators, most likely by someone drifting out of farming into being private service providers as part of a Symbiotic Community of producers and service provider. The need is to avoid any form of communal ownership. This might be readily done through facilitating getting Reconditioned Used Tractors into smallholder communities.

Please be very careful of any joint ownership of mechanical equipment. This would include producer organizations/cooperatives and public government tractor units which were tried and fully discredited some 40 years ago that I can personally track, and continue today. Just visit any Nigerian state ADP and see the lineup unrepaired tractors. Check the odometer, provided they have not been vandalized, and see the service hours when they were surveyed out of service. What percent of the 10,000 designed hours does that represent? Typically, only a third, rarely over a half. This private service provider contract tillage would be consistent with Egypt and other North Africa and West Asia countries where most of the smallholder land is contract tilled by individuals owner/operators. These tractors’ odometers will most likely be well beyond the 10,000 hrs. of designed service, perhaps 20,000 hrs. and still operating. Once this crop establishment drudgery has been relieved the rest of crop management is less arduous allowing manual operations to comply more with the recommended timing and plant populations, accompanied by improved yield or crop quality. While the 4-wheel tractors are best managed by individual private service providers, they can also be equipped with trailers that will allow for transporting both people and agriculture goods between village and cultivated fields, as well as some contract hauling for road repair, etc. The return visit to Madibira, mentioned above, not only showed 50 power tillers for use in the rice scheme but also three recently acquired 4-wheel tractors for use in the upland areas around the rice scheme. Again these were obtained without any development assistance and represent how important access to mechanization is to smallholders as well as missed opportunity by the development effort to serve smallholder beneficiaries.

I hope this is useful to those assisting in getting a solid sustainable green revolution for Africa.

25 July 2018
Contact CSU Equal Opportunity Privacy Statement Disclaimer

2018 Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colorado 80523 USA