The mechanization of agriculture can reduce workloads, increase prosperity and improve nutrition. Photo credit: Marc-André Boisvert / IPSDec 29 (IPS) – The mechanization of agriculture in Africa is increasing, replacing hand hoes and traction of animals across the continent. While around 80-90% of all farmers are still dependent on manual labor or draft animals, this is changing due to falling machine prices and rising rural wages. In recent years, tractor sales have increased by around 10% annually.
A look at the history of today’s mechanized countries shows that widespread replacement of manual labor with mechanical force can have major socio-economic and environmental implications.
In our most recent study, we examined how mechanization can change the face of African agriculture and rural areas. It is important to ensure that mechanization can be accompanied by measures that use its potential and minimize potential negative effects.
To understand the effects of mechanization, we collected data from 87 villages in Benin, Nigeria, Mali and Kenya. These villages were chosen as examples because they have already been mechanized. We conducted 129 focus group discussions with 1,330 rural residents. They identified different ways mechanization affected agriculture, rural life, and nature.
The findings from the 87 villages showed the great transformative power of agricultural mechanization. Mechanization can reduce workload, increase wealth, and improve nutrition. But there are also challenges such as soil erosion, deforestation and women’s access to tractor services.
Recognizing these challenges provides an opportunity through agricultural research and appropriate policy measures to prevent them from arising.
Consequences of using tractors
Our study focused on the use of tractors for land preparation as it was the most common mechanized activity in the case study countries. Land preparation is labor intensive and is usually the first activity to be mechanized. Participants were asked to mention positive changes that are directly related to mechanization. They then identified subsequent changes. What they told us formed a picture of a chain of bumps.
Overall, we found that mechanization has more far-reaching agronomic, ecological and socio-economic consequences than is generally assumed.
On the other hand, it frees men, women and children from heavy agricultural labor. This gives them time to do other things, like doing non-farm business or going to school.
Mechanization also helps overcome labor bottlenecks, a well-known barrier to rain-fed agriculture. This enables people to farm more land, as 61% of those surveyed stated. In Mali a farmer said:
Many farmers have land that they cannot work. It is rented out as fallow. The land is cultivated with the tractor and produces quantities of crops that exceed the consumption capacity of the household.
Using a tractor also improves the freshness of agriculture. Agricultural activities can be completed at the optimal time, which increases yields. This was found by 72% of all respondents. The general increase in agricultural production helps improve food security and reduce poverty.
On the other hand, 58% of respondents said that mechanization can affect long-term soil fertility, especially when the disc plow is used. They said using heavy tractors could cause soil erosion and compaction. In Benin a farmer reported:
The tractor increases soil compaction because of its weight … This is followed by problems of flooding and erosion, which significantly reduce fertility and therefore yield.
Deforestation is another problem. Cultivating more land can mean losing trees on a large scale. Even cutting down trees from fields so that tractors can work there reduces biodiversity and makes the soil more susceptible to rain and wind erosion. In Mali a farmer reported:
Trees are destroyed so that the tractor can work comfortably. This exposes the land.
Some effects are very context-specific, e.g. B. Employment Effects. In Benin, where mechanization was combined with land expansion, this significantly increased the need for labor for the non-mechanized parts of agriculture. No effects on unemployment were reported here, confirming a pattern from countries like Zambia.
In Nigeria, where fewer farmers increased land size, 48% reported job losses. Employment effects cannot be direct either. Many rural residents reported that the increasing wealth of farmers due to mechanization has positive effects on non-farmers such as blacksmiths, carpenters and hairdressers.
As with most emerging technologies, mechanization has benefits for some but not for others. While other studies have shown that smallholders have less access to mechanization, this was mentioned by only 15% of respondents. However, mechanization is less accessible to women compared to men. This was reported in all countries but varied: 71% of women in Mali shared this view, but only 5% of women in Benin.
Coping with the consequences
Most negative impacts are not related to farm mechanization and can be addressed with complementary agronomic practices and appropriate measures. Soil erosion can be reduced by conservative agriculture that protects the soil by replacing heavy disc plows with less soil-disrupting rippers or direct seeders and continuous soil cover.
Deforestation can be minimized through careful land use planning, for example by protecting land that is particularly valuable for climate protection, biodiversity and wildlife.
Entry points to ensure women benefit from mechanization can include campaigns to show female role models with tractors, support mechanization groups for women, and develop knowledge and skills.
With the right policies, countries can harness the potential of mechanization and address challenges. This can ensure that mechanization contributes to an African agricultural transformation that is socially, economically and environmentally sustainable.
Thomas Daum, agricultural economist, University of Hohenheim
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