Sub-Saharan Africa is set to more than double it’s population—from 1.1 billion people to 2.4 billion—by the year 2050. However, over the past several decades, the region has experienced a decline in food production per person. In order to feed the world’s growing population, agricultural productivity will need to improve.

Agricultural productivity is largely a reflection of poverty. In Malawi, for example, the 80 percent of the population works in agriculture, though agriculture accounts for only 36 percent of the country’s GDP. About 25 percent of the population exhausts their food supply just 5 months after harvest, and most rural families do not have enough land to produce sufficient food or have the sufficient money to purchase more land.

Similarly, 50 percent of the population of Kenya’s Western Province live below the poverty line. Though the farmers grow maize, they are typically net purchasers of the crop, and have to purchase more maize just before the harvest, as the food supply is exhausted.

The World Bank explains that agricultural productivity is important for reducing poverty, even for people who are not farmers. The overall cost of food, employment opportunities and wages, and sectors of the economy that interact with the agricultural sector all depend on agricultural productivity.

As a general rule, small farmers prefer to engage in less risky agricultural techniques, while farmers with more land and capital can afford to use labor-saving but potentially risky techniques. It is costly to be an early adopter of any new agricultural technique, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, where micro-climates necessitate experimentation.

As a result, the adoption of useful agricultural technology may lag. In Western Kenya, for example, only 37 percent of farmers have ever used chemical fertilizer. The levels of fertilizer use recommended by the Kenyan Ministry of Agriculture also contribute to low fertilizer use in the region.

According to a study by Innovations for Poverty Action, recommended fertilizer levels did not yield enough crop to offset the cost of fertilizer. However, lower fertilizer use still dramatically increased yield—as much as 63 percent.

Another study by Innovations for Poverty Action in Malawi, found that farmers may be more likely to use fertilizer depending on how much money they have when they are approached by sellers. If farmers were offered fertilizer at a time when they had money on hand, like just after harvest, they were 12 to 18 percent more likely to purchase.

An increased use of chemical fertilizers and other agricultural technologies will likely improve agricultural yields dramatically, and thus benefit farmers and their communities. Additional agricultural technologies likely to improve income for farmers are also being developed. For example, the Feed the Future Project provides fish farmers with technologies like Secchi disks, which monitor the quality and nutrient content of water.

Satellite Imagery is also being used in the Phillippines, to monitor environmental changes that may impact crops and fisheries. HarvestPlus has developed “iron beans” through a biofortification process of breeding. The iron beans improve yield, as they are resistant to viruses, and are heat and drought tolerant.

With increased availability of useful agricultural technologies and systems to help farmers adopt them, agricultural productivity can improve to help combat poverty.

Madeline Reding