Pursuing the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) brings us back to one of humanity's oldest problems: how to prosper in tropical Africa. The earliest humans probably came from there and chose to migrate across Eurasia where populations grew much faster and eventually became rich. Present-day Africans continue to face biophysical obstacles involving low and variable rainfall, weathered soils and persistent diseases. These obstacles are ancient but not unchanging. Indeed, one of the oldest observations about Africa in Western literature is that "out of Africa there is always something new," meaning that its environment changes so rapidly that people must struggle to keep up. (1)
This essay documents the dramatic changes that have led to worsening malnutrition in Africa amid an increasing abundance of food in Asia and elsewhere. To prosper in the face of these trends, Africa would need sharp growth in crop yields. Such growth is rarely initiated or sustained without adoption of new crop varieties to raise the payoffs from farmers' land and investments of labor and farm inputs. To make a green revolution, farmers and local entrepreneurs must introduce many agronomic and other innovations, but there must also be specialized investments to develop and spread new seed varieties.
Crop breeding and related innovations are distinctive in part because they rely on a worldwide network of seed banks and field trials to identify potentially valuable traits. These materials must then be tried locally in many different combinations to find the approaches that best fit local farmers' circumstances. Such efforts can help farmers overcome otherwise insurmountable obstacles, but the source of each breakthrough is rarely predictable, and when improved technologies are adopted their benefits accrue primarily to consumers in the form of lower-cost, higher-quality foods. Firms can capture only a small fraction of those benefits in private profits, even when the technologies are fully patent-protected. Local governments and foreign aid donors also have difficulty capturing political support for these results, particularly when the rest of the world has a relative abundance of food.
This essay argues that the technological innovations needed in Africa could flow faster if institutional changes were made within the donor community and among African governments. A particular proposal described here calls for a specific way to document the gains from past research, so that innovators can be paid proportionally to the gains for which they are responsible. Such "prize" payments would complement other sources of innovation and help open up a vibrant new market for innovation.
A wide range of responses to local challenges would be needed to help Africans meet the MDGs. This essay focuses on one particular response in order to clarify the magnitude and time scale of the broader continent-wide challenge. The essay builds its argument almost entirely through aggregate numerical evidence about long-term trends across all of Africa, contrasted with trends in other regions. The aggregate does not represent the experience of any particular person and it hides many important details, but it does help us to focus on appropriate actions for Africa as a whole. Most readers will be familiar with at least one time and place at which particular African farmers have confounded the continent-wide trends described here, and any well-traveled specialist will have seen dozens of unusual cases. Those experiences are real, but they have not been frequent or extensive enough to outweigh the effects of other factors on a continent-wide scale.
Each piece of evidence presented here is the result of some census, survey or official estimate, reflecting the real-life experiences of millions of households. By adding up the data from many people we can identify influences that may be too small to see in any particular case but which may affect millions of households in similar ways, thereby altering their fate. …