For millions of smallholder farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa, the shift from subsistence agriculture to engagement with markets is a promising way to improve rural livelihoods. However, engaging with markets often requires the difficult task of adopting new inputs, such as improved seed varieties and fertilizers, as well as implementing new farming techniques.

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In Sub-Saharan Africa, farmers are often paid low prices for their produce, yet customers often pay high prices for staple foods. There are multiple potential explanations for this phenomenon, one of which is that traders may hold market power and collude, leading to higher food prices than there would be if those traders offered competing prices.

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Testing Agricultural Technologies

Using improved hybrid seed varieties may generate higher yields for maize farmers in sub-Saharan Africa—where agricultural productivity is low relative to other regions—but many farmers have not adopted these seeds. This project, which was not a randomized evaluation, studied the comparative yields of several seed varieties and farmer purchasing decisions in an effort to understand the performance and adoption of seed varieties in northern Ghana.

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One reason for low incomes among smallholder farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa may be a lack of demand for their crops in the markets that these farmers have access to. In Kenya, Smallholder Horticulture Empowerment and Promotion (SHEP) is a program that trains smallholder farmers to adopt a “market-oriented farming” approach involving shifts to more in-demand crops and adoption of new agricultural practices.

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Agricultural yields for farmers in sub-Saharan Africa tend to be lower than the rest of the world, and African farmers tend to use fewer productivity-enhancing agricultural technologies like fertilizer. This may be because of poor access to markets for farmers in remote rural areas, leading to higher delivered prices for inputs, lower net prices for output, and therefore, lower profitability of yield-enhancing technologies.

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In Burkina Faso, as in many sub-Saharan countries, farmers struggle with low crop yields. Most established techniques to increase agricultural productivity rely on the use of technologies like fertilizer, but these inputs are expensive and inaccessible to many farmers in the region.

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In parts of southern Africa, environmental pressure on the land from over-grazing has contributed to land and water shortages and made communities more vulnerable to drought. In Namibia, researchers are measuring the impact of a community-based natural resource management program on livestock assets, income, social cohesion and land quality.

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A fertilizer retailer in Tanzania

Small farm productivity in sub-Saharan Africa lags behind that in Asia and other parts of the world. One reason for this may be low rate of adoption of inputs such as fertilizer. In Tanzania one reason for this may simply be the absence of local retailers, especially in more remote areas. Researchers are testing if their absence may be because of the costs of entering these markets or demand, with interventions targeted to each.

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Farmers in Burkina Faso are selling more of their crops and taking on non-agricultural work

The agricultural sector in Sub-Saharan Africa has been changing in recent years, with more farmers living near urban areas, selling more of their crops for income, and also engaging in more off-farm work and non-agricultural activities to supplement farm revenue. However, little evidence exists thus far on how these trends are affecting nutrition, especially that of the most vulnerable members of farming families—women and children.

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A sugar cane farm in Kenya

Farming is risky: a drought, bad harvest, or dip in crop prices can leave small farmers in developing countries without much-needed income. Attempts to mitigate these risks with agricultural insurance have typically been unsuccessful because farmers have chosen not to buy insurance. Researchers partnered with a large sugar cane company to see if delaying the premium payment until after the harvest would increase farmers’ demand for insurance.

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Uganda land

Curbing deforestation in developing countries may be a cost-effective way to reduce carbon emissions and address climate change. Innovations for Poverty Action worked with researchers to evaluate the effectiveness of a payments for ecosystem services (PES) program, in which Ugandan landowners were paid not to cut forest trees on their property.

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Seasonal hunger affects 300 million of the world’s rural poor. Seasonal migration can help some people find temporary employment, but many of those who could potentially benefit from migration face financial constraints that prevent them from traveling during the lean season. Researchers investigated whether providing low-cost travel incentives increases migration, and whether migrants experience better food security as a result of their travel.

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Intensified use of agricultural inputs, particularly fertilizer, is a possible route to improved agricultural productivity. Evaluations of fertilizer use show substantial increases in yields, but they are typically done on highly monitored experimental plots rather than by farmers themselves.

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Efficient targeting of public programs is difficult when the costs or benefits to potential recipients are unobservable. This study examined the potential of self-selection to improve allocational efficiency in the context of a program that subsidized tree planting in Malawi.

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