Seminar für ländliche Entwicklung (SLE), the Centre for Rural Development at the Humboldt University of Berlin researches structural change in sub-Saharan Africa and develops solutions for more socially inclusive and sustainable design.


Presentation of the Project in Benin. All Photos (c) SLE


Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) - Special initiative "OneWorld, No Hunger" (SEWoH)

Research Team

Prof. Dr. Gabriele Beckmann, Erik Engel, Anja Kühn, Marghitta Minnah, Dr Susanne Neubert (Project Leader / Contact), Prof. Dr. Theo Rauch, Dr Simone Rettberg, Daniela Richter, Anja Schelchen, Alfons Üllenberg

Outside expertise

Dr. Malte Steinbrink, University of Osnabrück; Prof. Dr. Harald Grethe, Albrecht Daniel Thaer Institute of the Humboldt University; Prof. Dr. Beate Lohnert, University of Bayreuth


2014 to 2017


Rural structural change is characterized by different trends and features. In Europe and East Asia, rural and agricultural structural change in the 19th and 20th centuries were driven particularly by the increase in productivity in agriculture and industrialization. Mechanization and other technologies freed up workers in the countryside, who then migrated to the cities and found new employment there in the growing industrial sector. In the same way, farms became larger, so that they were able to exploit scaling effects so as to achieve or maintain agricultural sector farms grew in a complementary way, and so relative prosperity in the countryside. The differences in incomes between the rural and urban population remained limited. The number of farms has decreased and continues to decline. Despite social upheavals, there has not been massive impoverishment of the rural or urban population.


Seminar für ländliche Entwicklung (SLE) The Centre for Rural Development at Humboldt University of Berlin, does research on the subject. Its focus is not on the opportunities and risks that are generally associated with rural structural change, but rather whether there is a specific rural structural change in Africa that differs from those in Europe and East Asia, and how the identified changes, whether structural or not, can be socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable.


The economy in the sparsely populated lowlands of Ethiopia is characterized by nomadic cattle herding.


The economy in the sparsely populated lowlands of Ethiopia is characterized by mobile cattle farming.

The empirical analyses for this research project were carried out in Zambia, Benin and the lowlands of Ethiopia. Moderated by SLE, local experts identified trends and associated factors affecting development within different sectors using scenario technology (qualitative and participatory) and worked together to develop future scenarios. The three countries mentioned were selected because they have different characteristics and therefore represent a broad range of African countries. While vast, landlocked Zambia is sparsely populated with an economy based on raw materials, small coastal Benin is a densely populated country rich in farmland. The economic system in the sparsely populated and semi-arid lowlands of Ethiopia is characterized by nomadic animal herding, while the rural areas of the other two countries are dominated by small farms.


The slight changes that are emerging are not comparable with the structural changes in Europe and East Asia, but are specifically African.


The results show that, in Zambia and Benin, only very limited rural structural change is taking place so far, or none at all. The slight changes that are emerging are not comparable with the structural changes in Europe and East Asia, but are specifically African. For example, in Zambia and Benin, productivity gains have been very small on the national average, for various reasons. In Benin, this is mainly due to the commercialization of a few well-positioned farms and, in Zambia, to the growth of the fertilizer subsidy program. Although there has been some increase in crop yields, which are very low on average, many small farmers with limited resources have seen their productivity remain stagnant, and even decline. The soil is becoming increasing degraded due to the one-sided focus on growing corn, highly inadequate replacement of nutrients and exposure of the soil to wind and water erosion. In addition, there are very few opportunities for farmers in sparsely populated Zambia to sell their crops due to inadequate infrastructure; this factor hinders agricultural diversification because farmers have no incentive to do so.


In conclusion, it can be said that conditions in rural Africa are more likely to be reversed than was the case at that time in Europe or East Asia. If the people in the European countryside migrated to the cities because of the increase in productivity and because they were no longer needed as rural laborers, they do so in Africa because necessary gains in productivity have failed to materialize.


Meanwhile, young Africans in particular are migrating in large numbers to the cities, and not just the main cities, but smaller and mid-sized cities as well. Rural laborers are earning inadequate income and their agricultural products are not competitive with imported products, which is why people often see no prospects in the countryside and in agriculture.

But we should not imagine that rural areas are being emptied, as was the case in Europe. Rather, due to the persistently high population growth in all African countries, the population in rural areas will continue to grow in the medium term. The birth rate, which declined in Europe as a consequence of the structural change, continues to be high to very high in most African countries, and shows no sign of changing in some countries, such as Zambia.


The majority of small farms do not yet have the means, and often not the know-how, to improve soil fertility and replace plant nutrients in sufficient quantities to stop this spiral. This also applies with regard to fertilizer subsidies, since these are by no means sufficient. Moreover, these subsidies are only available for corn in Zambia and for cotton in Benin. Although Benin's cultivation patterns are somewhat more diverse and agriculture differs in other areas of Zambia, soil degradation is a very big and growing problem in both countries. As a result, the situation looks similar.


Most people do not find what they are looking for in the cities


While the labor force in rural areas of Europe and East Asia was once freed up by mechanization and increased productivity, as well as growing opportunities to find employment and income in the cities, most people in African countries who undertake this migration today do so only to escape poverty. For most people do not find what they are looking for in the cities. The number of (formal) employment opportunities is far too small in the cities, which are unable to absorb the bulk of the immigrant population. The construction industry and the service sector, the few mines and the big farms are far from having the potential to take on so many workers. Labor-intensive industrialization, such as took place in Europe in the nineteenth century, will probably never take place to a comparable degree in Africa. As a result of globalization, the few modern factories and industries in African countries operate in a capital-intensive and digital manner. The bulk of the country's (unskilled) labor force will not be needed for production.


Project Participants at the Meeting in Benin

At this time, new areas of poverty are being created around African cities, and quite a few people decide to return to the region after a certain time. Due to the social cohesion of the families, but also due to the lack of formal social security systems, people survive in so-called multi- or translocal systems to secure their livelihoods or family networks: Family members support each other in crisis situations, as well as seasonally, by going where the better survival possibilities or workforce are needed (circular migration). This strategy is effective in that it. ensures the (continued) possibility of life and minimizes risks, but has nothing in common with dynamic economic development. While this strategy is useful for multilocality, its prosperity is limited, because vulnerable groups support other vulnerable groups, which at best results in a “scraping by” situation.


Family members support each other in crisis situations as well as seasonally


Development in Ethiopia is to be assessed slightly differently. It is here that a structural change can be most easily discerned, though it also bears specifically African characteristics. This change consists, in the arid and semi-arid lowland regions, in a massive alteration of previous settlement and land use patterns, whereas in the highlands, despite broad national growth rates and successes in the reduction of poverty, no widespread structural changes have been recorded. Furthermore, a large proportion of the population of Ethiopia, which continues to be the least urbanized country of sub-Saharan Africa, lives from small-scale farming under increasingly precarious conditions (degradation, extremely small cultivation areas below one hectare). In the lowlands, there has been mass impoverishment of mobile livestock farmers over the last few decades, since the herd sizes per household have drastically decreased.


Pasture grounds are degrading strongly, with the most productive communal pastures – those near rivers – are being blocked by large-scale land investments and increasingly privatized. Inevitably, most households have begun to move towards a more sedentary, more diversified lifestyle. Where the spatial conditions allow, mobile pasture farming is increasingly combined with subsistence farming (especially maize). At the same time, small and medium-sized cities are growing by the immigration of impoverished pastoralists, refugees (Eritrea, Somalia) and labor migrants from upland regions, though it is impossible for the labor market to correspondingly absorb them. Although women are experiencing increased self-esteem and power as a result of their increased involvement in income-generating non-pastoral activities as compared to men, their workload has greatly increased. This leads to the finding of a largely negative structural transformation in lowland areas where only a few commercially oriented large-scale owners currently benefit.


Based on these country-specific trend analyses, qualitative future scenarios were developed up to 2030 with the help of local experts. The results can soon be read in three corresponding country-specific studies and a comprehensive study. From the identification of future key factors for structural change in rural areas, the research group develops strategic approaches to the more socially inclusive and ecologically more sustainable design of the identified trends. On the one hand, the recommendations for action are aimed at increased rural development, which should increase the prospects of the population in the country and reduce the ecological damage, so that the emigration of the urban population can be slowed down. On the other hand, strategies are being developed to increase job opportunities, especially for young people in the cities.


The recommended measures for rural development also serve to combat the causes of flight.


The slowdown in urbanization and the creation of jobs at the same time should help to circumvent the limited capacity of the cities and at the same time to raise them. This is a core concern, because otherwise further impoverishment is a logical consequence, which ultimately leads to flight across the Mediterranean. The recommended measures for rural development therefore also serve to combat the causes of flight.


Discussions in Benin

The recommendations are aimed primarily at an ecological intensification of land use to achieve higher productivity and at the same time counteract soil degradation, deforestation and groundwater reduction. This, in turn, can only be achieved with the help of sustainable soil management, more diverse building patterns, adapted mechanization, and better marketing. In doing this, it is also essential to take account of the upcoming changes in the supply chain. The creation of a small industry in small centers, for example for the processing of the products, but also in areas primed for agriculture (e.g. machinery, equipment), can create a higher added value and jobs.


Whether it is possible to achieve rural development and thus also increase the security and sovereignty of the national food supply of the countryside and the cities depends not only on the political and financial self-commitment of the national governments and ministries, but also on whether prices of agricultural products can be achieved such that production incentives for the mass of small farmers and cattle herders are improved. Without any adjustments being made to the distorted global trade policy in a way which responds to this necessity, such rural development will not be feasible.

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Seminar für Ländliche Entwicklung (SLE)

The Seminar für Ländliche Entwicklung (Center for Rural Development) is an institution of the Humboldt University of Berlin. It has four areas of work: study, training, research and consulting.

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