Alice Song / Sun Staff Photographer

Christopher B. Barrett speaks at "The Uneven Transformation of Rural Africa Myths, Facts and Pressing Needs" as part of the Institute for African Development Special Topic Seminar Series.

February 22, 2018

Poverty in Africa a Challenge that ‘Agricultural Universities Like Cornell Need to Tackle,’ Says Prof

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Sub-Saharan Africa “remains, unfortunately, the world’s poorest subcontinent,” said Christopher Barrett, deputy dean and dean of academic affairs for the SC Johnson College of Business, during a talk on Thursday.

The event was hosted by the Institute for African Development and attendees had the chance to hear Barrett delve into the problems that plague Africa today and ones that will appear in its future development.

“Poverty is disproportionately rural,” Barrett said, and it pertains heavily to agriculture. “That is one of the challenges that great agricultural universities like Cornell need to tackle.”

The depth of poverty stood out to Barrett as “the most troubling part of the poverty story in sub-Saharan Africa.”

With the ever-increasing population in the region of “ultra-poor” — people who earn less than 95 cents per day — “it is a signal to many of us [researchers] of something called a poverty trap,” Barrett continued. “They find themselves, for a variety of circumstances, in situations where their best strategies in life unfortunately perpetuate their poverty”.

Eighty percent of the poor population in sub-Saharan Africa works in the agricultural sector, according to Barrett.

When it comes to future issues, “climate change is the big one,” he said. Based on his field work with pastoralists and predictive models of herd sizes in the region, Barrett projected that “the herd dynamics will completely collapse.”

Not everything is so grim, however.

Livestock and herd dynamic problems can be solved with interventions, Barrett said.

For example, Barrett partook in a collaborative project called “Index-Based Livestock Insurance,” which used satellite imaging to monitor herd sizes and provide funds for areas that have lost herds to natural causes.

“Sub-Saharan Africa is, very quietly, going through this huge economic expansion” predominantly in agriculture, he said. He said that perspectives of African farming as “peasant agriculture” that “[doesn’t] use modern inputs” are a “generalization.”

Developmental improvements in finance can particularly promote growth, such as through the M-Pesa, a mobile financial transaction system, and the Ethiopian Commodities Exchange, which informs farmers on local market rates.

“It’s mind blowing,” Barrett said.