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A few days ago Bill Gates released his annual letter to the world, opening with a discussion of how Gates-funded agricultural research can help Tanzanian farmers.  Coincidentally, before coming to CGD I did some agricultural research in Tanzania myself -- funded in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation -- so I was eager to compare notes.  Gates’ letter is so optimistic about agricultural innovation lifting Tanzanian farmers out of poverty, it feels almost impolite to point out that the main source of poverty reduction for Tanzania farmers in the past two decades has been essentially the opposite: leaving the farm.

Description: Christina Mwinjipe inspects her cassava cropDescription: Dr. Joseph Ndunguru researches crop samples in his lab

Gates opens his letter by introducing us to Christina Mwinjipe -- a small-scale farmer in Tanzania whose cassava crop is threatened by something called brown streak disease.   Sadly, cassava is not a big priority for commercial agricultural research.    Enter Dr. Joseph Ndunguru, a plant scientist in Dar es Salaam who is developing disease-resistant cassava.

Ndunguru embodies Gates’ core idea that agricultural innovation can help small-scale farmers in situ.  But this vision is at odds with the recent historical record of poverty reduction for Tanzanian farmers.  To build up that historical record, I and my co-authors (Razack Lokina at the Univeristy of Dar es Salaam and Måns Nerman at Gothenburg University)  pieced together all available survey data – including recent Gates-funded data – on Tanzanian small-scale farm productivity.  Here's what we found:

  • First, innovation is not very popular with Tanzanian farmers.  The share of farmers using any modern farming technologies -- fertilizer, irrigation, improved seed, herbicide, pesticide, mechanization, etc. – is extremely low and stagnating across the board.
  • Second, income levels have been stagnant within agriculture.  The same is true in the informal, non-farm sector.  But the latter offers much higher income levels -- implying that farmers such as Christina Mwinjipe could achieve huge income gains just by leaving the farm.
  • Slowly but surely, this is exactly what has happened over the past couple decades.  Tanzanians are responding to market signals and moving out of agriculture -- primarily into self-employment in informal micro-enterprises (see the first chart below).

Putting all these pieces together, the biggest driver of household consumption growth in Tanzania from 1991 to 2007 was not agricultural innovation, productivity growth, or anything to do with agriculture whatsoever.  Over 40% of all consumption growth came from people getting out of farming (see the second chart below).

There’s a risk here of creating a false choice between innovation to boost productivity and policies to promote movement out of agriculture.  The idea that farm productivity growth is a prerequisite for industrial growth has a long and prestigious pedigree in development economics.  (Alas for this theory, in Tanzania agricultural productivity has stalled, yet people keep leaving.)

Description: Machine generated alternative text: Occupation of Household Heads, 1991 -2007 CI) o -c G) U) D o ..- o None Public Self Agric. 1991 2000 2007

Am I suggesting that the Gates Foundation scale back its focus on agriculture innovation?  Not necessarily.

The Gates Foundation’s work on agricultural innovation is an unmitigated good thing, and the topic is well-suited to the talents and proclivities of a private philanthropic foundation.   It’s a great, relatively apolitical niche for a private donor to fill, leaving bigger and more contentious issues to public actors with greater political legitimacy.

Ultimately, I have two concerns with this year’s letter. The first mostly concerns rhetoric. I cringed at the reference in the middle of the letter to the “population bomb” and global food supply shortages. This strikes me as fear mongering that distracts from the main issue.

More substantively, the letter seems to assume that once Dr. Ndunguru finds a brown-streak resistant cassava strain, Christina Mwinjipe will spontaneously start using it.  Low adoption of seemingly profitable technologies is a huge obstacle. We need more attention and hard thinking about solutions on that front.

The most important message is for other donors.  Let Gates be Gates.  But there is a limit to how far the lens of innovation can guide development policy.  Not all social ills are susceptible to a technological fix.  Science and innovation are cool and politically easy, while economic reform and political compromise are messy and tedious.  But governments and donors must confront the messy issues that stand in the way of major structural transformation in economic backwaters like Tanzania.  Things like enabling large-scale foreign investment in agriculture without trampling farmers' rights, or opening borders to easier trade within East Africa.

It's still true that the majority of Tanzanian farmers are poor, and a majority of poor people in Tanzania are in farm households.  But it doesn't necessarily follow that the solution to their poverty is in a new seed, or even on the farm at all.

Disclaimer

CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.