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A more hopeful view of Africa
January 20, 2004

PLECserv 25

In a recent article which brings together almost 40 years of development experience, Mary Tiffen of Drylands Research in the UK presents a useful analysis of transitional economies in sub-Saharan Africa, leading the way to more effective and useful policy development and investment. Tiffen points out the extreme weakness of the statistical base in regard to population numbers and growth and in agricultural production itself. She proposes instead a non-mathematical model of the ‘interrelationship over time of the rural, mainly agricultural sector, and the urban, mainly manufacturing and service sector’. Several countries in SSA now have between 40 and 50 per cent of their populations living in towns, and there are also many non-agricultural activities in the numerous smaller agglomerations. Per-capita food imports remain low, implying that farmers have been able to keep pace with the growth in internal demand. They have invested substantially on a farm scale, and national investments in infrastructure have also greatly assisted the integration of rural with urban economies.

Because of the deficiencies in comparative national data, Tiffen draws on detailed studies carried out at village or regional level in four countries, all in semi-arid areas of sub-Saharan Africa. Two are in the francophone Sahel (Senegal and Niger), one in northern Nigeria and one in eastern upland Kenya. Tiffen locates these economies in the section of the transition curve where numbers in agriculture are declining in relative terms and are starting to decline in absolute terms. Three transitions are particularly evident. There is a widespread increase in livestock production, especially for meat. At the same time the former specialization between farmers and herders is giving way to an increase in mixed farming: ‘If it is not a contradiction in terms, semi-arid farmers have become specialists in mixed farming and crop-livestock integration (p.1359). Third, and not least significant, active land markets have evolved, leading to an accumulation of resources by the better-off farmers who are benefiting most from the new trends in the rural economies. Quite strong differentiation is emerging.

Also important is the rapid growth of off-farm incomes, both among the poorest who have to scramble for low-wage opportunities, and among the better off households which often have members in both farm and non-farm occupations and sometimes combine different activities on a seasonal basis. In the anglophone countries, where primary education is in local languages, there is great interest in investment in education, less so in the francophone countries, where education from day one in French is perceived to offer less benefit.

There is clear linkage between the progress of urban and rural economies. A recent slow-down in the urban economy of northern Nigeria is reflected in fewer opportunities in livestock specialization for the surrounding farmers. Elsewhere, urban growth and diversification creates larger markets for rural produce, while also providing urban-manufactured goods and services for farmers. In determining future patterns of investment, aid agencies and national policy makers need to be informed on the stage of transition within specific countries and regions within them. The current need is for investments that will improve productivity in the regional urban centres, so that they can continue to stimulate agriculture and provide jobs for those who are leaving farming.

The paper can be accessed through the UK Development Studies Association web-site at: Failing this, or to correspond with the author, write to Mary Tiffen directly at

Tiffen, M. 2003. Transition in Sub-Saharan Africa: agriculture, urbanization and income growth. World Development 31 (8): 1343-1366.

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