Sub-Saharan Africa Farm Yields 70-90 Percent Below Potential, Atlas Research Finds

October 21, 2014

Sub-Saharan Africa has the world’s largest gap in farm yields – 70-90 percent below their potential – according to a new research tool unveiled today. The outcome of a 6-year international collaborative research effort led by the Daugherty Water for Food Institute at the University of Nebraska and Wageningen University in the Netherlands, the Global Yield Gap and Water Productivity Atlas is the first transparent, interactive and map-based web platform to estimate exploitable gaps in yield and water productivity for major food crops worldwide.

The Atlas can help farmers, policy makers, foundations and private sector organizations identify regions with the greatest potential to sustainably produce more food with strategic use of resources. The Atlas also provides a digital platform for analyzing location-specific crop production and land-use changes, as well as the potential impact of certain crops or new agriculture technologies on specific areas.

“Producing enough food to meet the demands of more than 9 billion people in 2050, while conserving natural resources and ecosystems, depends on improving crop yields on existing farm land around the world,” said Roberto Lenton, founding executive director of the Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Institute at the University of Nebraska. “The foremost use for the Atlas is to leverage data to identify opportunities to strategically increase yield and water productivity of existing cropland, rather than tilling more land that may not be ideal for sustainable crop production.”

Composed of data gathered by a variety of international scientists beginning in 2008, the Atlas includes information from nearly 20 countries and projects are in place at an additional 30 countries. The data show that Sub-Saharan Africa – primarily smallholder farmers practicing subsistence agriculture in Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Tanzania and Uganda – can potentially increase yields of existing farms by more than twofold. Other studies show that Ethiopia’s surface water and groundwater supplies could irrigate 10 times as much land than they are right now.

“The Atlas enables farmers and policy makers to identify regions with the greatest potential to improve water productivity and grow more food sustainably. It provides data that helps determine where we can get the most bang for the buck from prudent use of inputs such as fertilizer, better seed and water,” Lenton said. “For example, in Nebraska, the yield gap is about 10 percent, but in a place like Tanzania, the yield gap is closer to 40 percent – there is a significant opportunity to improve that yield.”

The Atlas is innovative in that its research follows a bottom-up approach, using agronomists from each target country to identify key agricultural areas and collect data about local conditions and farming methods. Researchers scale this data to national, regional and global levels through an agro-climatic zone scheme, which considers geographic regions with similar climate conditions. The international research team is also developing methodology to accurately convert short-term weather data into long-term patterns and to scale-up local yield estimates.

The Atlas was presented at the sixth annual Water for Food Global Conference held Oct. 19-22 in Seattle, Wash., hosted by the Water for Food Institute in association with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Water for Food Conference
This year’s conference, "Harnessing the Data Revolution: Ensuring Water and Food Security from Field to Global Scales," provided a forum for more than 250 global experts and policy leaders to discuss ways to overcome the urgent challenge of growing more food with less pressure on scarce water resources. Attendees specifically focused on how data can improve the productivity and sustainability of both small and large farmers around the world.

The conference included presentations and panel discussions by internationally renowned speakers, such as Jerry Bird, director general, International Water Management Institute, Robb Fraley, executive vice president and chief technology officer for Monsanto, and Jeff Raikes, co-founder of Raikes Foundation and former CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. They covered a range of topics, including the data needs of smallholder farmers, using climate data to improve decision-making, water in agriculture, public health, and the policy and economic implications of water metering. Another key highlight of the conference was the announcement of a Memorandum of Understanding between the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) and the Water for Food Institute.

For additional information on the Global Yield Gap and Water Productivity Atlas, visit: For additional information on the 2014 Water for Food Conference, visit:

About Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Institute
Founded in 2010, the Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Institute at the University of Nebraska is a research, education and policy analysis institute created to address the global challenge of achieving food security with less pressure on water resources through improved management of water in agricultural and food systems. The institute is committed to ensuring a water and food secure world without compromising the use of water for other human and environmental needs.

Media Contact:
Melissa Lee
Director of Communications,
University of Nebraska