Currently, many parts of sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) are in the midst of an economic transformation. While challenges remain and progress is uneven across countries and regions, a large and growing body of evidence suggests that many parts of SSA have undergone profound economic change since the early 2000s. This economic growth has taken place within an improved political and macro-economic environment and in the context of rising global commodity prices. It has been accompanied by rapid agricultural growth (in some countries), growing rural off-farm employment, and strong local and foreign investment (Frankema & van Waijenburg, 2018; Jayne et al., 2018).

However, two decades into this transformation, a key question is whether these developments will last or whether this is a boom period that will—again—be followed by a bust. As noted by many (Jerven, 2010; Frankema & van Waijenburg, 2012; Broadberry & Gardner, 2019), this is not the first time that parts of SSA have seen an extended growth period. The 1950s and 1960s saw widespread optimism concerning growth prospects in SSA, but this optimism waned as growth performance deteriorated. Will this time be different? Some are skeptical, warning that the current growth is volatile and vulnerable because it is driven by commodity exports and foreign direct investment and not accompanied by industrialization, structural transformation, or poverty reduction (Gollin et al., 2016; Fioramonti, 2017). Any effort to understand whether the current growth episode will last must take these concerns seriously, especially as they relate to the rate of poverty reduction, its relationship with structural transformation, and the nature of agricultural growth.

To date, the economic growth across SSA seems to have had but a modest effect on poverty reduction. While many countries have seen a reduction in relative poverty, absolute poverty levels have not decreased, as population growth has offset the improvements. Instead, the rapid growth has been accompanied by disappointing poverty reductions and welfare gains in many countries (Cheru et al., 2019). SSA’s high economic growth without broad-based welfare gains is not a historical anomaly; in today’s high-income countries, there has generally been a lag from growth to broad-based development (Frankema & van Waijenburg, 2018).

In order for growth to have a substantial impact on poverty, it must be accompanied by a structural transformation based on the transfer of labor from low- to high-productivity sectors and on labor productivity growth. The historical evidence suggests that all countries that have transformed into high-income countries have experienced structural transformation (Kuznets, 1966; Chenery & Syrquin, 1975) and that achieving such transformation is the only sustainable pathway out of poverty (Barrett et al., 2010). Historically, the transfer of labor from low- to high-productivity sectors has implied a transfer from the agricultural sector to the manufacturing sector. However, this clear sectoral boundary may now be blurring with the rise of high-productivity agricultural and service activities (Cheru et al., 2019).

The structural transformation links to the third aspect of the sustainability of the current growth process: the nature of agricultural growth. A key concern about the sustainability of the current growth episode is whether it is merely driven by the export of cash crops (or, in some cases, minerals) and favorable terms of trade. If so, the episode would share similarities with the previous growth episode in the 1950s and 1960s, which ultimately was not sustained. Instead, broad-based, inclusive growth that benefits large segments of society is necessary for sustained growth (Andersson & Andersson, 2019). The limited success in increasing agricultural productivity and achieving an agricultural transformation in many African countries has led some researchers to question whether agriculture can generate sufficient growth to play a leading role in African development (Collier & Dercon, 2009, 2014; Dercon & Gollin, 2014). Several aspects of the transformative power of agricultural growth are questioned, including its efficacy in reducing poverty (Hasan & Quibria, 2004), whether it is a typical precursor of development (Ellis, 2004), and its ability to have strong growth linkages in today’s globalized world (Hart, 1998). However, as Diao et al. (2010) show through the economy-wide modeling of six African countries, there is little evidence to suggest that contemporary low-income countries can bypass broad-based agricultural transformation in order to achieve successful and sustained economic transformation.

While it is well beyond this book (and most social scientists) to predict the economic future of any one country, certain elements can indicate whether a growth process is likely to be sustained or not based on historical experience. If growth is accompanied by structural change, a successful agricultural transformation, and welfare gains for a large part of the population, it is more likely to be sustained (Kuznets, 1966; Barrett et al., 2010; Valdés & Foster, 2010). This also applies to contemporary low-income countries in SSA. While some work on economic development in SSA engages in “African exceptionalism,” this book sees no reason to consider the African continent as different from the rest of the world (for a discussion of this issue, see Cramer et al., 2020). All the countries in SSA are on their own development paths, as were all contemporary high-income countries. Some of the challenges of contemporary low-income countries are similar to those that today’s high-income countries once faced, while others are unique to the current era. Nevertheless, as other parts of the world have achieved sustained economic growth once the right obstacles were removed and a sufficiently permissive environment was created, so could contemporary low-income countries in SSA.