A year ago, I watched an online lecture from Stanford University, Engineering a Path out of Poverty (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tUtky6stISA), given by Dr. Martin Fisher. He talked about his life’s work on lifting people out of poverty in Africa. In the lecture, he discussed how the key to help people overcome poverty is to find or create an easy, accessible, and cheap way for them to make their own money. More effective than distributing food and clothes, etc., charities should be directing funds to educate and to help people start their own businesses. I was very inspired by this talk, and for my Catalyst Conference article, I want to explore this topic in more detail through data.
Despite Africa’s abundance of natural resources, African nations tend to lean to the bottom of any list measuring economic activity, such as GDP (gross domestic product). A country’s economy can predict a lot about the poverty rate: countries with higher GDP tend to have a smaller percentage of citizens living under the national poverty line, while countries with lower GDP tend to have an increased percentage of citizens living under the national poverty line. So in order to decrease Africa’s poverty rate, we need to increase each nation’s GDP. And it turns out that donating money and food towards people under poverty, although it may seem like a good solution, actually decreases the nation’s GDP in the long run. By donating food, we are taking away African farmers’ jobs, which is essentially making the situation worse. How do we increase the GDP? One of the most accessible solutions lies in agriculture.
With more than 60% of its population living in rural areas, Africa’s economy is dependent on agriculture. More than 32% of the continent’s gross domestic product comes from it. In Africa, agriculture accounts for two thirds of livelihoods and food costs account for two thirds of the household budgets of poor people. It makes up a very important part of the lives of African people, and it also takes up a big part of their lives. In order to help raise the GDP of these countries, we need to increase the productivity of the continent’s agriculture. In fact, in recent years, the low productivity levels of agriculture in Africa have resulted in a worrisome scenario: it doesn’t meet the growing demand for food from urban cities. So increasing productivity will not only help those farmers out, it will also improve food security, allowing a larger percent of the population to work in non-agriculture roles.
Above is a scatter plot displaying the GDP of a country and that country’s agricultural value added per worker. As you can see, there is a trend that show increased agricultural productivity correlates with higher GDP. There are some outliers, which makes sense, as there are multiple areas that contribute to GDP beyond agriculture.This chart demonstrates the correlation between actual poverty and agricultural productivity, skipping the in-between GDP step. Again, there is a general trend but there are multiple outliers. The similarity of the two charts also demonstrates the correlation between GDP and poverty rate.
|This chart demonstrates the correlation between actual poverty and agricultural productivity, skipping the in-between GDP step. Again, there is a general trend but there are multiple outliers. The similarity of the two charts also demonstrates the correlation between GDP and poverty rate.|
One of the greatest way to improve the productivity of agricultural practices in Africa is through water usage, or irrigation. Along with bringing high temperatures, climate change in the past couple of decades has also brought along irregular and unpredictable weather patterns. This is especially hard on farmers who don’t use irrigation technologies, as they don’t know how much rain is going to come each growing season. As of now, only 5% of the continent’s agricultural land is irrigated, compared to East Asia with 41% or North America with 12%:
Another way to visualize the impact of irrigated land on poverty rate (perhaps a bit more clearly) is through maps:
From the two charts above, you can see the correlation between the areas with higher poverty and the areas with less irrigation (especially in Africa). It is really interesting how visualizing the same data multiple ways can produce very different effects.
In the end, by increasing the use of irrigational technologies, farmers can guarantee the growth of crops each year and increase the agricultural productivity, which should then increase the GDP and lower the poverty rate. However, there is one problem standing in the way: irrigation is expensive. Thankfully, there are many organizations out there designing inexpensive products to help these factors.
SO WHAT CAN WE DO?
- Support Kickstart International (http://kickstart.org/), an organization which creates cheap hand water pumps to help families in Africa. So far, they have raised 1,200,000 people out of poverty and created 210,000 new jobs. Their mission: “KickStart’s vision of success is to take millions of people out of poverty sustainably, and in doing so, to change the way the world fights poverty. We see the untapped entrepreneurial drive in the world’s poorest people and harness this potential for massive change.”
- Donate towards education and political stability in African nations. This will help improve the other main causes of poverty in African cities.
Africa’s high poverty rates can be traced back to an underlying theme: agricultural productivity; however, this is not the only reason for the continent’s poverty. As shown as the many charts above, there are countless other factors affecting the GDP and continent’s economy: political instability, education, diseases, public health, natural disasters, social inequality, etc. So there is no single cause to poverty. In the same way, there is no single solution. Nevertheless, by taking this one step by increasing irrigation practices in African countries such as Kenya and spreading awareness about the issue, society could be taking a step towards a better future.