Contents - Previous - Next

This is the old United Nations University website. Visit the new site at


H. R. J. Davies

The need for development in African drylands cannot be gainsaid. Africa contains some 10 per cent of the world's population on 22 per cent of the earth's surface. All indices of development are at best broad generalizations, but nevertheless the following indicate something of Africa's underdevelopment. In energy measured in coal equivalents Africa uses less than 3 per cent of the world's consumption, consumes some 2 per cent of the world's steel, has less than 2 per cent of the world's passenger vehicles and only 3 per cent of the commercial vehicles, flies less than 5 per cent of the passenger and freight air kilometres, consumes 1 per cent of the newsprint, has little more than 3 per cent of the world's radio receivers and less than 1 per cent of the telephones (most of which do not work), and in spite of great efforts it has less than 5 per cent of the world's teachers and just 7 per cent of the world's students. As soon as comparisons are made with the industrialized countries of the world, the yawning gap is even more clearly spelt out. Thus the GDP per capita in Africa as a whole is US$460, compared with $5,260 for the EEC countries and $7,148 for the United States. The highest in the world is $15,089 in the United Arab Emirates, based solely on oil wealth Similarly, life expectancy at birth is almost everywhere in Africa less than 50 years, compared with 71 in the United Kingdom and 73 in the United States.

The importance of the agricultural sector may be judged from the fact that in Africa 65 per cent of the economically active population in 1980 were employed in agriculture compared with 45 per cent for the world as a whole. Yet in spite of this Africa consumes only 2.7 per cent of the nitrogenous fertilizers consumed by the world every year and has only 2.1 per cent of the world's agricultural tractors. It is also clear that the agricultural situation is worsening. Between 1970 and 1980 world food production per capita increased from an index of 100 to 104, whereas in Africa it fell from 100 to 88, the worst record for any continent in the world. Out of 47 countries in Africa making returns to the United Nations in both years, 38 showed a falling per capita food production, and only 9 recorded an increase. Of these 38, there were 5 that actually produced less food in 1980 than they d id in 1970. This predicament was brought about by the rapid population increase of 2.7 per cent per year in Africa, compared with 1.8 per cent for the world as a whole and 0.5 per cent for Western Europe. Another problem is low yields in Africa, which for most food crops are about half those of the world average. In the case of sorghum and related millets world yields in tons per hectare increased by 6 per cent during the 1970s but were completely static in Africa, where the yield was only 53 per cent of the world average and would have been very much lower if irrigated sorghum in the Nile Valley had been excluded. Similar situations may be discerned in the livestock industry, where Africa has 14 per cent of the world's cattle but produces only 2.4 per cent of the world's cattle milk.

The need for agricultural development in the African dry-lands is even more dramatic than in Africa as a whole. In the six countries of Chad, Mali, Niger, Senegal, Sudan, and Upper Volta more than 75 per cent of the economically active population is engaged in agriculture, and the figure falls below 80 per cent only in Senegal and Sudan. In 1970, however, all of these countries exceeded 80 per cent and three exceeded 90 per cent, whereas today the highest, Mali, reaches 87 per cent. All of these countries showed considerable falls in food production per capita during the 1970s. The best record is that of Upper Volta with a fall from 100 to 97, whereas the worst is Senegal with a drop to 76. For Mali, Sudan, and Upper Volta agricultural products account for over 90 per cent of their exports. Only in Niger are they comparatively unimportant (29 per cent) because of uranium production. Each of these countries suffers from a severely adverse trade balance. Yet in spite of their overwhelmingly agricultural economies all except Mali find themselves paying more for imported foodstuffs than they earn from foodstuff exports. The position is clearly worsening, for in 1970 only Senegal, Sudan, and Upper Volta were net food importers. Furthermore, these countries have very few tractors. Africa averages one tractor for every 1,000 persons, whereas in these countries it is one for every 4,000. Similarly, the use of nitrogenous fertilizer in Africa as a whole averages 3.3 kilograms per head of population, whereas for these six countries it averages 1.5 kilograms. On a broader basis all six have low GDPs per head of population. In Mali and Upper Volta the level is less than 20 per cent of even Africa's low figures.

Of the six countries, Sudan has probably done more than any of the others to develop its agriculture, especially through government-sponsored and semi-sponsored schemes. In the 1950s a large programme of well and borehole sinking and excavation of hafirs (hollows to store rainwater excavated by modern earth-moving machinery) was begun to make it possible to open up wide areas of the unused savannas of central Sudan where there was a chronic shortage of drinking water for people and animals, and at the same time a programme for the development of mechanized agriculture on the clay plains in this areas was also undertaken. These attempts to extend rainland agriculture were paralleled by a programme to increase the number of irrigated pump schemes along the Niles and the 350,000hectare Manaqil Extension to the Gezira Scheme was undertaken.

During the 1960s and 1970s a great many other projects were carried forward to boost agricultural development. Rainland cultivation was greatly extended through the Mechanized Farming Corporation, regional development bodies such as the Western Savannas Development Corporation and the Nuba Mountains Agricultural Production Corporation, and other programmes to develop ranching on the savannas. The development of rural water supplies in the desert margins and savanna zone continued apace. Irrigation was greatly expanded. The Khashm el Girba Dam enabled 200,000 hectares to be irrigated from the Atbara River, and the Roseires Dam enabled the 125,000hectare Rahad Scheme to be developed and made possible a large increase in pump schemes along the Niles, of which the spectacular Kenana Scheme is said to be the world's largest sugar plantation. To these schemes for agricultural development within Sudan's drylands may be added the programmes for improved rural health care, rural electrification in the Gezira region, the beginnings of a tarred road network, and the development of industries based on agricultural products, in particular cotton textiles. Of the 1982/83 development budget of úS 502 million, 35 per cent is earmarked directly for agricultural development, with a further 18 per cent for the railways, which carry virtually all Sudan's agricultural exports, which account for 95 per cent of the country's exports.

The fruits of these efforts over the past 35 years may be judged from a fivefold increase in the area under both rainfed and irrigated cultivation, whereas over the same period the population has increased by only 76 per cent. However, it is plain that all is not well. In spite of all these efforts, Sudan still has a considerable net food deficit. In 1981 it had the smallest cotton crop in 40 years, and ground-nuts actually displaced cotton as the main export earner. The current trade deficit is running at US$1,000 million per year. Total foreign debts amount to US$5,200 million, and rescheduling of the debt repayment has been necessary. If Sudan had to buy oil at full international prices, the bill in 1981 would have amounted to nearly 90 per cent of its foreign earnings. In spite of efforts to expand industry, it only accounts for 10 per cent of Sudan's gross domestic product, and hardly any factories run at anything approaching full capacity; the largest group, textiles, averaged 30 per cent in 1981.

In the agricultural field specifically the picture is most unhappy. The Mechanized Farming Corporation's state farms ceased operations during 1981 because of unsupported able financial losses. The Gezira Scheme has been in severe trouble for the last five years and has been the subject of a commission of enquiry. Neither the Khashm el Girba nor the Rahad Scheme is currently making a profit, and the area first brought under mechanized agriculture near Gedaref has now been abandoned. The constant theme of agricultural investigation has been declining yields. Official figures suggest an overall decline of 14 per cent in sorghum yields per hectare during the 1970s.

Much of the effort for agricultural development in Sudan, especially in the north, has been in large schemes. Carr wrote despairingly of such schemes in 1977: "The more you spend on them, the less likely they are to succeed." The point he makes is that large projects imply "revolutionary" rather than "evolutionary" change, and so people find it much more difficult to identify with them. Furthers more, rural development to be successful must be not only environmentally and economically sound but also socio-culturally acceptable and within the capabilities of management and administration as well as existing infrastructure. Unfortunately, De Wilde's comments of 1967 are still rarely taken seriously enough: "Successful development of agriculture often requires an intimate understanding of the society within which it is to take place-of its systems of values and customary constraints."

Success of course may depend on the viewpoint from which a project is judged: At the widest level there is an international and ecological viewpoint; but within the country the government may be looking for increased exports or more cheap food for the towns, the region may hope to obtain raw materials for processing at competitive prices, the local community may be looking for increased local taxes and stable food supplies, and individuals may be hoping to improve their life-style. The Gummuiya pumpirrigation scheme of some 3,500 hectares situated on the west bank of the White Nile between Omdurman and Jebel Aulia is an excellent example. From the government planners' point of view it is an abject failure. It was planned to produce fruit and vegetables for the 1.5 million people living in the Three Towns capital (Khartoum, Khartoum North, and Omdurman), an environmentally and economically sound prospect. Instead, the scheme is one large irrigated sorghum field-from the local farmers' point of view a perfectly sound proposition. Sorghum has been grown here under rain cultivation time out of mind. Irrigation assured the sorghum crop, which could be allowed to fully mature to provide the farmer's basic food, or cut green for animal feed. Surpluses are sold in the town to produce a modest cash income, and the crop requires little labour, an important factor in an area where life is hard and demanding on the desert margins.

Thimm (1979) examined eight diverse schemes in Sudan within the arid/semi-arid zone for the United Nations University. Three were concerned with large-scale mechanized rain-fed cultivation of sorghum in eastern Sudan; one was a large-scale irrigation scheme (Khashm el Girba); one was a scheme to "modernize" traditional farming in the Nuba Mountains; two were pilot schemes for the settlement of nomads in western Sudan; and the last was a smallscale irrigation scheme in Northern Darfur. He tried to evaluate how successful they were under eight headings in two groups of four.

Under the first group, "permanence of cultivation", he suggested that six out of the eight schemes had failed to lead to "permanency of cultivation"; five schemes had serious "organizational shortcomings"; five had serious shortcomings in terms of "social acceptance"; and five were clearly economically unviable.

Under the second group, four of the schemes generated significant private income; none generated significant public (national or local) income; four could be seen as successful in creating significant employment opportunities; and four had been successful in involving local people in the development process. Thimm's conclusions briefly summarized: "No project can be called economically sound from the private and public point of view." "Wherever possible plans must be prepared with the people, not for them."

In 1966 at a conference in Zaria in northern Nigeria on the question of agricultural development in the area, Professor Darling, then Director of the Institute for Agricultural Research, expressed the view that most of the scientific problems of crop production in northern Nigeria were either solved or about to be solved, that sufficient was known of economic factors to render this aspect solvable, but that the socio-cultural problem of getting the scientific solution accepted had hardly even been formulated (Sjo et al. 1967). Darling's comments may have been rather too hopeful regarding the first two groups of factors, but he has been certainly proved right on the third, as the title theme of the Arid Lands Sub-programes -"the ineffectiveness of attempts to apply knowledge to the management and development of arid lands"-implies.

The problem is complex, for, though for convenience the various factors are analysed separately, they are in practice closely interrelated. Certainly, many factors can be raised: insufficient finance leading to inadequacies in the agricultural extension service and agricultural education programmes; inadequacies in the infrastructure and shortage of foreign exchange leading to breakdowns in water pumps and agricultural machinery and the nonavailability of fuel at critical times, inadequacies of management caused by shortage of trained manpower in view of the large number of projects being developed within a short space of time, and exacerbated by rapid re-postings of the more competent managerial personnel, which leads to poor supervision and malaise in scheme organization; political and regional pressures leading to inconsistencies and irregularities in resource allocation for the various sectors of the economy, for the regions, and for the main thrust of development within the various sectors.

Such deficiencies are of great importance and provide a serious brake on the successful acceptance of scientifically proven innovations; however, even if all these could be put right, there are more fundamental problems. First, as in all countries of the developing world, there is a duality between the "modern" and the "traditional", between "urban" and "rural", between those imposing the system and those submitted to it, and those wanting to initiate change and those having to accept and co-operate with it. Of themselves these constraints encourage a disharmony between a government with a development programme with headquarters in the Three Towns and the traditional rural cultivators. Inevitably agricultural development and change are perceived quite differently, but without the willing cooperation of the traditional rural cultivators none of the government's plans can succeed.

A further dilemma of Sudanese society is the status of the cultivator and the services offered to rural areas. Because modern amenities of electricity, medical services, educational possibilities, entertainment, etc. are better provided for in towns and because wages, if a job can be procured, are higher in towns, people perceive that, to enjoy a pleasanter life-style and to stand a chance of getting on, it is advantageous to go to town. Inevitably the more enterprising and the more energetic move and the less so stay behind in the countryside. At the same time, because of the inadequacy of services and the lack of good communications such as tarred roads and an efficient telephone service, few of the educated people wish to work in the countryside, and so the provision of medical and similar services is held back in rural areas. Even those with agricultural qualifications look towards desk jobs as administrators or research appointments on well-serviced government research stations. Few wish to make a career as farmers or rural extension workers, with the result that even agricultural research becomes divorced from the farmers' needs. The poor returns from agriculture, the failure of modernization of agriculture to take place, and the failure of many agricultural projects to be viable means that few graduates will take up farming and that the status of farming is low. You become a farmer merely because you cannot become something different.

Yet this situation will not do, for Sudan is heavily dependent on its agricultural sector to provide a livelihood for most of its people, to provide food for its rapidly expanding towns, and to furnish its essential imports. Without a healthy agricultural sector there seems little likelihood of material progress in the immediate future for many of its people, and this will remain true for the more distant future even if oil provides a temporary respite.

The four studies presented here were financed by the United Nations University, through the good offices of the University of Khartoum and especially of its Institute for Environmental Studies, and each tackles a current problem in the use of natural resources in the semiarid lands and looks at how and why the people involved reacted in the way in which they did to a particular change or aspect of the environment.

The first study, by Bebawi, El Hag, and Khogali, is concerned with the problems of aura ( Sorghum vulgare} cultivation, concentrating particularly on those associated with the parasite buda (Striga hermonthica). As already indicated, official figures suggest a decline of 14 per cent in overall sorghum yields per hectare during the 1970s. Given the right conditions, aura has great potential for development in the desert margin areas, an important factor for Sudan's food supplies.

One of the great achievements in Sudan since the Second World War has been an improvement in rural water provision. The second study, by Al Awad, Mohammed, and El-Tayeb, is concerned with the impact on the environment of this programme in part of south-eastern Kordofan.

An increasingly important environmental problem is being created by demands for wood, particularly for firewood. Firewood is used either directly or as charcoal for cooking and other purposes. At present firewood is being brought to Khartoum from as far away as the Nuba Mountains. Yet, in spite of the difficulties and costs involved, investigations in the Three Towns confirm that charcoal is still the preferred fuel, especially for the poorer classes, because of its price, ready availability, and familiarity. Babiker, Shaddad, and Musnad investigate the firewood problem in the Nuba Mountains.

Lastly, the conflict between the planners' end participants' perception of natural resources and their potential is investigated by Abu Sin in the Khashm et Girba irrigation scheme, a scheme which was also investigated briefly by Thimm (1979).


Carr, s. 1977. Settlement schemes in Africa: Success or failure.
Reading Bural Development Communications Bulletin, 3: 6-8 (Sept. ).

DeWilde, J.C. 1967, Experience with agricultural development in tropical Africa. 2 vols. Johns Hopkins university Press, Baitimore'Md., USA.

Sjo, J., B.J. Buntjer, H.R.J Davies, and D. Norman. 1967. Proceedings of a seminar on methods and problems of data collection and use for rural economic and social research Samaru Misc. Paper no 16.

Thimm, H.-U. 1979. Development projects in the Sudan: An analysis of their reports, with implications for research and training in arid land management. United Nations University,
Tokyo. (NRTS-1/UNUP-42)

Contents - Previous - Next