Published as Hohenheim Working Papers on Social and Institutional Change in Agricultural Development No. 003-2020
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Agricultural mechanization is on the rise in Africa. A widespread replacement of manual labor will change the face of African agriculture. Despite this potentially transformative role, only few studies have looked at the potential effects of mechanization empirically, mostly focusing on yields and labor alone. This is the first paper that explores agronomic, environmental and socioeconomic effects together, thereby revealing linkages and trade- offs, some of which have been hitherto unknown. Data were collected using a novel data collection method called “Participatory Impact Diagrams” in four countries: Benin, Kenya, Nigeria and Mali. In 130 gendered focus group discussions, 1,330 respondents from 87 villages shared positive and negative effects experienced due to agricultural mechanization and were able to develop their own theory of change. This is the first study that gives a voice to the rural population on mechanization and allows them to identify causal impact chains. Regarding agronomic and environmental aspects, respondents perceived mechanization as a way to reduce labor shortages, improve timeliness and enhance land preparation, leading to higher yields. However, it is also associated with the cutting of farm trees as well as farmland expansion, and, subsequently, deforestation and a decline in firewood availability. Respondents also experienced that (plough-based) mechanization can have detrimental effects on soil fertility and cause erosion, which was associated with yield drops and risks in the long-term. Regarding socioeconomic effects, mechanization was reported to increase incomes, reduce drudgery and free up time for other farm and off- farm activities. However, mechanization was also linked with social tensions and conflicts, for example, related to land issues, which can pitch farmers against pastoralists. Tensions and conflicts also play out across gender. Some effects remain ambiguous. For example, depending on local factors, mechanization reportedly increases or decreases employment. Further research and policy efforts are needed to ensure that mechanization contributes to an African agricultural transformation that is sustainable from a social, economic and environmental perspective.