Low crop yields, low income - Benin's small farmers are often unable to make a living. More and more people are trying their luck in the city. But there is potential in agriculture.
Porto Novo / Cotonou
Approximately 10.9 million
Approximately 6.1 million (56.1% of the total population)
Gross domestic product
USD 8.5 billion
Per capita annual income
Share of agriculture in GDP
Severity of hunger according to the Global Hunger Index
Serious (value: 23.2 / Trend -8.6)
Share of the population suffering from malnutrition
Human Development Index
Rank: 166 of 188
Proportion of the population living on less than USD 1.25 a day
Young democracy, weak economic development
The Kingdom of Dahomey, as it was known at the time, played a significant role in the Transatlantic slave trade in the 17th and 18th centuries. Benin was a French colony until its independence in 1960. After a period of communist one-party rule between 1974 and 1990, Benin made a peaceful transition to democratic conditions in the early 1990s which served as an example for other African states.
However, high public debt, ubiquitous corruption and increasing social inequality have slowed the economic development of the young democracy, and economic growth cannot keep pace with the country's rapid population growth. A little over a third of Benin's population of about 11 million is living below the poverty line. Poverty is especially high in rural areas, where it affects around 50 percent of the population. In poor households, children are particularly at risk: almost half of all children under the age of 5 suffer from chronic malnutrition. Low purchasing power, high food prices, rural mismanagement and, often, unbalanced diets contribute to the precarious food supply, especially in the north.
Agriculture: Engine of development or poverty trap?
After trade with Benin's big neighbor Nigeria, agriculture is the second most important pillar of Benin's economy. The agricultural sector accounts for 23 percent of gross domestic product and employs a large part of the work force, directly or indirectly. The country's farms, most of which are run by small farmers, produce food not only for their own needs, but for sale in Benin's cities or in Niger and Nigeria. Food processing is also a significant source of income, especially for women. The country's major agricultural exports are cashews and palm oil, and pineapple exports are also becoming increasingly significant. Rice is grown in Benin and imported as well.
Poverty is also a function of household size, which is why the government wants to limit population growth.
Benin's main product continues to be cotton, which accounts for more than half of agricultural production. But sales of "white gold" are generating shrinking profits for Benin's cotton producers. Subsidies adopted by industrialized and emerging countries in an effort to stimulate their own cotton sectors are distorting the market and causing a continuous decline in prices on the world market. As a result, the widespread cultivation of cotton in the northern part of the country is threatening to turn into a poverty trap.
Benin's small farmers lack modern techniques for cultivation, harvesting and storage. The soil is becoming increasingly exhausted. Land is being bought up by investors for cheap prices and forests are being cleared to make room for monocultural farming. The north is becoming more and more devastated, as cattle breeders compete for land, which is becoming increasingly scarce. Benin's poor are paying the price for the destruction of the environment and land grabbing, although they saw hardly any of the profits. As a result, Benin is increasingly vulnerable to catastrophe.
Vicious cycle of rural exodus
For many in Benin, living in the countryside is no longer an option. Working with a hoe is too arduous, and all the labor and sacrifices seem to yield little profit. Young people especially are being drawn to the coastal population centers in the hopes of earning money quickly. The urban population is growing twice as fast as in the countryside, and already 44 percent of the population is living in cities. Lacking an education and a profession, many people find work as zémidjans (motorcycle taxi drivers) or other odd jobs. Often, they have to work several jobs just to stay above water. Others try their luck in neighboring Nigeria, where the economy is stronger. As a result, Benin is experiencing an increasing shortage of young farmers. Together with other problems, soil exhaustion, climate change and lack of production equipment, the departure of rural youth is having a drastic impact on the productivity of Benin's agricultural sector, and therefore for the country's food supply. It's a vicious cycle which demands decisive intervention at the political level.
CASSAVA, MAIZE, MILLET AND YAMS A rather humid climate prevails in the southern part of the country. In the north, it is dry. As a result, cultivation practices and eating habits vary in the different parts of Benin. In southern Benin, farmers grow maize and cassava and the people use corn meal to prepare various doughs with peanut and tomato sauce. The fermented cassava dough agbelina is also typical of the region. In the center and north of the country, the people grow yams, which are made into fufu. Millet is also an important basic food, and is used to make a kind of couscous.
Benin's goal: Comprehensive poverty reduction
Despite great efforts, Benin was unable to reach its Millennium Development Goals on poverty and hunger by 2015. In its latest strategy paper on poverty reduction, the government states that it's taking a series of measures to stimulate the local economy and combat poverty, particularly in rural areas. Poverty is also a function of household size, which is why the government wants to limit population growth. Gender equality is also on the government's agenda. Social welfare for older citizens and educational opportunities for young people in agriculture are additional concerns, and access to basic infrastructure and microloans for the poor are also an important part of the government's efforts.
More on the subject:
- The Country Information Portal: https://www.liportal.de/benin
- World Bank: http://data.worldbank.org/country/benin
- Country Indicators FAO: http://www.fao.org/faostat/en/#country/53
- 2016 Global Hunger Index: http://ghi.ifpri.org/de/countries/BEN/
- Human Development Report: http://hdr.undp.org/en/countries/profiles/BEN
- World Food Programme, 2015. Benin: https://www.wfp.org/countries/benin
- "The Cotton Sector in Benin: Poverty Trap or Engine of Development"; Jan Niklas Engels in: Kurzberichte der Entwicklungszusammenarbeit, Friedrich Ebert Foundation, March 2004
- German Trade & Invest (GTAI) http://www.gtai.de/GTAI/Content/DE/Trade/Fachdaten/PUB/2015/06/pub201506098000_18555_wirtschaftsdaten-kompakt---benin--mai-2015.pdf
- Government strategy paper on poverty reduction in Benin: https://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/scr/2011/cr11307.pdf
- Special Initiative of the Federal Ministry of International Cooperation and Development: ONE WORLD without hunger is possible in Ethiopia: http://www.bmz.de/de/themen/ernaehrung/innovationen/gruene_innovationszentren/benin/index.html