Agricultural Productivity: A Key Part of African Poverty

A year ago, I watched an online lecture from Stanford University, Engineering a Path out of Poverty (, 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:

Above: Map showing % of population below the poverty line (source:

Above: Map showing irrigation across the world (Source:

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.

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  • Support Kickstart International (, 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.



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  1. April 27, 2018 by Alison Selman

    This is a very interesting argument and I really liked your use of maps and graphs. I am surprised by how many outliers there are that contradict your conclusion, but there is definitely still a correlation.

  2. April 28, 2018 by BBracker

    After having just done one of these catalyst things on water scarcity, I can say that I concur completely. Irrigation can compete with people’s personal needs for water, and yet as you suggest, it is vital to agricultural and economic success. For both purposes, supporting the creation of dependable sources of water is indeed a great way to help.

  3. April 28, 2018 by Nakul.Bajaj

    You mentioned that there is no single solution – what do you think is the best solution that can be implemented right now?

  4. April 28, 2018 by Mila Tewell

    The range of ways in which you visualized data here was excellent — and led to a clearly , well told story. I would be tempted to add a map of areas most impacted by climate change, which I believe would correlate well with your maps of global poverty and irrigation. Well done!

  5. April 29, 2018 by Esther Bedoyan

    I like how you created a line of best fit in your graphs to show how important agricultrue is to a country’s economy/economic growth and poverty. I also liked how you incorporated some outside source maps to help illsutrate your point. Nice job in bringing more awareness to this issue!

  6. April 29, 2018 by Naoya Okamoto

    Very interesting argument. It’s a bit analogous to the idea that improving the lives of the homeless requires not simply donating foods, and clothing, but enabling them to find work to help them elevate themselves out of poverty.

  7. April 29, 2018 by Vivian

    The data and the analysis you provide are super interesting! You mentioned that it was important to increase agricultural productivity in parts of the African continent. One way that people have tried to deal with this was by introducing special crops that can lead to higher yields and that are more weather-resistant. What is your opinion on the distribution of genetically modified crops (that require less irrigation) in this region?

  8. April 29, 2018 by Jimmy Chen

    Very thoughtful article and I find it important to approach the poverty problems in a technical way and trying to find their roots.

  9. April 29, 2018 by Jason Chen

    Cool graphs! I like that.

  10. April 29, 2018 by Melle.Koper

    Great article, love the graphs!

  11. April 29, 2018 by Justin.Chen

    This article proves that simply giving aid is not the answer, but providing work and resources to enable self-production is the ultimate way to assist struggling nations. This is an amazingly well-written article with great graphics.

  12. April 30, 2018 by Huy Tran

    Very unique and captivating article. Great data analysis.

  13. April 30, 2018 by Ananth J Josyula

    Having taken a look at your call of action, a few thoughts emerged in my head. Do you really think that by donating money, political stability can be achieved? After all, often the very money that is intended for aid ends in the hands of corrupt leaders who continue to exploit exponentially.

  14. April 30, 2018 by Cole.Biafore

    I think your maps really helped demonstrate poverty rates in Africa. I like how you used your data to get a correlation line, but I think a couple of your data points may have a large influence on the line. It is obviously an important issue to talk about and you are right that their is not a single solution to the problem. I’d be interested to hear what you might have to suggest to fix the problem though!

  15. May 01, 2018 by Hyunsuh.Kim

    Your visual representations are powerful, and this is an issue that I feel particularly important as well. In addition to your Kickstarter solution, I was thinking that Kiva, a microfinance website where you can lend money to prospective to-be business founders in developing countries so that they can start a sustainable source of earning money, and return the money to you once they earn enough, could be a great way for many of us to help.

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