January 17, 2020 | By Margaret Cornelius, Nicolas Gatti, Peter Goldsmith, Edward Martey

Guest Commentary - Addressing the barriers to soybean production in Africa

Worldwide production of soybean has grown at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 4.68 percent since 1961, while African production levels are rising 48 percent faster at a rate of 6.84 percent per year. Yet, African producers still supply less than 1 percent of the world’s soybeans. South Africa, Nigeria, and Zambia are the top three soybean producers on the African continent and together make up 39 percent of Africa’s production. Sub-Saharan African (SSA) producers yield about one third of those found in the leading soybean countries of the world, such as the U.S. and Brazil. The low yields result from the proliferation of a low input management system by SSA farmers. Due to the high cost of inputs and a lack of access to credit, SSA farmers predominantly use saved seed, few inputs, and low seed populations. This low input model preferred by farmers and development practitioners is admittedly low cost, but results in low outputs as measured by yield, returns to labor, and profitability. This low input - low output model, which predominates in the tropics of Africa, stands opposed to the successful high-input-high output model used in the tropics of South America. 

Soybean Production, World v. Africa, 3-year average (2015-2017)

Africa remains a minor player within the global soybean production scene. Levels of production are low, as are growth rates in yield. Total production in the region is rising faster than the world as a whole, but that increase originates from a very low base of production. Shifting from a low input – low output system to a high input – high output system could increase African soybean yields by as much as five times. Mechanization, better agronomic management practices, and high input levels could maximize the potential of soybean production in the tropics. While low input systems are low cost and easy for a donor or development practitioner to extend to farmers, they are not productive and thus are not effective at expanding the domestic supply of soybean. High input systems are necessary in the tropics, and proven to be economically sustainable, but challenge small holders due to the high cost and management burden.

While the demand for soybean continues to increase across Africa for meal, oil, and human consumption, the supply continues to lag. In Ghana, the domestic supply lags behind demand by as much as two-thirds, requiring the country to import soybean grain, meal, and oil. While soybean production in Ghana for example has shown significant growth in the last decade, this is in comparison to a very low base of production as mentioned previously. Smallholder production inefficiencies due to low yields excessively raises costs per bushel, making them unable to compete in the international market. These farmers are producing small quantities, possibly combined with poor quality, limited storage, cash sales at harvest, and must travel long distances from buying centers which all contribute to significant increases in price. Small holder farmers in Africa face the challenge of poor scale economies, weak infrastructure, and consistently low yields.

Increasing inputs can have a significant impact on soybean yields. This is exemplified in the SMART (Soybean Management with Appropriate Research and Technology) Farms operated by SIL agronomists in Ghana, Ethiopia, Malawi, and Zambia. The research from the SMART farm guides researchers and development practitioners on an optimal path for soybean adoption by smallholder farmers across Sub-Saharan Africa. The research for development design presents a step-wise approach of designed input bundles that incrementally advance producers up the management ladder to higher yields and profitability.

Effects of various input bundling treatments on soybean yields in Ghana. Farmer = typical farmer practice;    Control = certified seed only; I = inoculum (NoduMax); L = lime (Calciprill); P = phosphorous (TSP 46 percent)


SMART Farm research shows soybean yields can increase by 2.5 times by using appropriate agronomic practices and input bundles such as the Green bundle.

This blog piece is a summarization of three separate articles (Soybean Costs of Production by Dr. Peter Goldsmith, Soybean Prices by Dr. Edward Martey, Dr. Peter Goldsmith, and Dr. Nicholas Gatti, and Soybean Yield in Africa by Margaret Cornelius and Dr. Peter Goldsmith) that were previously published as part of a 12-part series entitled The State of Soybean in Africa.


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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