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Recalibrating South African agricultural growth

In the recent issue of Agrekon, which is an agricultural economics academic journal, some of the most renowned agricultural economics professors, namely Johann Kirsten, Philip Pardey, and Colin Thirtle wrote a moving memorial tribute of the late Dr Frikkie Liebenberg, who was working at the University of Pretoria in the last years of his life.

Early on in my agricultural economics career at Grain South Africa (Grain SA), I was always intrigued by the “index number” theory, and South Africa’s agricultural long-term productivity. No one has ever delved in the details of agricultural productivity growth like Frikkie did, and it is my considered opinion that his PhD is the best work, thus far, in this area in South Africa.

Frikkie’s work invoked within me, a deep appreciation of agricultural economic history, and those who regularly follow my work and my blog may have noticed that I cite Frikkie’s work frequently.

I will not do justice to the memorial work that has been published by Professor Kirsten, Pardey, and Thritle’s, so I will repost the article here, with the expressed permission of the authors.  Here we go:


Recalibrating South African agricultural growth: Frikkie Liebenberg in Memoriam

By Johann Kirsten, Philip Pardey & Colin Thirtle (2019), Agrekon Journal

Frikkie Liebenberg’s overriding professional passion was to develop, from scratch, an in-depth, evidence-based understanding of the sources of long-run growth of the South African agricultural economy. He was especially interested in, and had hands-on knowledge about, technical change as a driver of agricultural productivity growth and the role of R&D (research and development) in these consequential change processes.

Frikkie not only single-handedly changed our empirical understanding of these important economic development matters, he also relished discussing the practical realities of South African farming, often with an eye to their historical dimensions. He was as comfortable dealing with the trials and tribulations of turning problematic and often hard-to-find numbers into economic data, as he was dealing with the intricacies of index number theory to meaningfully form aggregate measures of agricultural inputs, outputs and productivity, or the technical nuances and practical details involved in determining tractor horsepower ratings.

Lipton with Longhurst (1989) attributed the lack of progress in African agriculture to a paucity of decent data. As an agricultural economist with an appreciation of economic and agricultural history, Frikkie understood the profound improvements in economic well-being that come by means of improved productivity growth. He was determined to rectify the many data inaccuracies and missing data problems that impaired our professional efforts to assess South African agriculture and stood in the way of improving public policy and institutional decisions designed to enhance the country’s agricultural economy.

The obvious importance of these issues had led the pioneers of our discipline to investigate these matters, beginning in earnest around the mid-twentieth century. The first total factor productivity (TFP) index for agriculture was constructed by staff of the US Department of Agriculture (Barton & Cooper, 1948). Then followed Ted Schultz (1953) and Zvi Griliches (1958) estimates of the economic returns to investments in public sector R&D. Griliches (1960) – and later Gardner et al. (1980) – provided perceptive critiques of US agricultural input, output and productivity statistics that served as a guidepost for repeated rounds of revisions of the US estimates. They also shaped the measurement methods that underpin the InSTePP US Production Accounts (see, e.g., Craig & Pardey, 1996; Pardey et al. 2006; Alston et al., 2010), which Frikkie adopted for constructing the corresponding South African accounts.

These improvements in economic measurement led to improvements in our understanding of the nature and sources of growth in agricultural output and productivity (e.g., Griliches, 1963; Ball, 1985; Craig & Pardey, 2001), and the wider economy (e.g., Jorgenson & Griliches 1967). Schultz and Griliches passed the productivity and returns-to-research batons to their University of Chicago students Bob, Evenson, Vernon Ruttan and Willis Peterson (see, e.g., Ruttan, 1954, 1956; Evenson, 1967; Peterson, 1967).

Peterson and Ruttan spent much of their careers at the University of Minnesota, where Phil Pardey trained and then began working with Frikkie in the mid-1990s, first while at IFPRI (the International Food Policy Research Institute, Washington, DC) and then the University of Minnesota. Thus, there is a direct intellectual lineage between the seminal, initially US-centric, work on the economics of R&D and agricultural productivity growth at the University of Chicago, and the South African work on these same topics led by Frikkie.

Frikkie was a frequent visitor to the Applied Economics department at the University of Minnesota, as he wrestled the South African agricultural data into shape for his University of Pretoria PhD thesis (Liebenburg, 2013) under the joint supervsion of Phil Pardey and Johann Kirsten, then Head of the Department of Agricultural Economics, Extension and Rural Development, University of Pretoria.

Notably, decades earlier, Hans Binswanger had his first professional job at the University of Minnesota working with Vernon Ruttan to write the highly influential volume Induced Innovation: Technology, Institutions and Development. After a long and illustrious career at the World Bank, Hans joined the Department of Agricultural Economics, Extension and Rural Development faculty at the University of Pretoria, where he and Frikkie crossed professional paths (Frikkie being a Senior Lecturer at the time, after many years as an agricultural economist at the Agricultural Research Council (ARC)).

Thus, Frikke Liebenberg followed in this great US tradition half a century later, seeking answers to similar, and equally important, agricultural productivity and returns-to-research questions for South Africa, but with far more problematic and less accessible data. Indeed, in 1993, visiting USDA staff concluded that it was not possible to measure South African TFP (total factor productivity) given the lack of suitable data.

However, Thirtle et al. (1993) did just that, using experience gained in Zimbabwe tailored to the South African data they developed for the purposes at hand. Thirtle et al. (1994) accounted for measured changes in South African TFP change using current and lagged estimates of local public R&D and extension expenditures, and farmer education, plus proxy variables to represent the effects of R&D spillovers from research done outside South Africa, and weather.

The early studies by Colin Thirtle, Johan van Zyl and colleagues motivated the Agricultural Research Council to establish an agricultural economics unit in the Agricultural Research Council under the leadership of Johan van Rooyen and Johan Carstens in 1998.

Frikkie was their first agricultural economics recruit. He dove deeply into the institutional aspects and the history of the establishment of the ARC (and its predecessors) and also unpacked the different sources of funding of the public agricultural research system (e.g., Flaherty et al., 2010; Liebenberg et al., 2011).

His earlier work (Liebenberg & Kirsten, 2003) highlighted certain design flaws in the South African agricultural research systems and how they negatively impacted agricultural growth and agricultural productivity improvement. He long hoped, and worked, for improvements in the way scarce agricultural research resources were allocated and used, emphasising an economic way of thinking designed to maximise the social returns to these public investments.

Through his persistent and doggedly determined data rescue and rehabiliation efforts, Frikkie Liebenberg, working with a team of postgraduate students and researchers at the University of Pretoria – plus Phil Pardey and other University of Minnesota International Science and Technology Practice and Policy (InSTePP) centre colleagues, notably Connie Chan-Kang, plus colleagues at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) produced a substantive and path-breaking body of work on South African agricultural R&D and agricultural productivity developments.

There is now a joint research centre between the University of Pretoria and the Agricultural Research Council on the “Economics of Agricultural R&D”, a continuing legacy to the work Frikkie instigated at both institutions.

During the several years prior to his sudden, senseless and sad passing on 13 March 2017, Frikkie had been working with a new crop of University of Pretoria graduate students, passing on the empirical and analytical skills he had mastered. He did so selflessly, always willing to expend his time on helping to impart the tools of the trade.

His vision was to continue developing and deepening the data required to address the ever-changing policy, market and analytical challenges facing South African agriculture, while at the same time continuing to expand the pool of local professional talent to tackle the country’s perennial and newly emerging agricultural innovation and productivity challenges.

He had also struck up a strong professional partnership with Jan Greyling at Stellenbosch University – who shares Frikkie’s passions for South African agricultural history focused on the causes and consequences of that sector’s long-run growth, combined with Frikkie’s instinct that the analytical devils lie in the details of the data.

The professional and policy problems that attracted most of Frikkie’s attention have profoundlivelihood and economic development implications. Making evidenced-based policy decisions based on reliable and relevant data is a prerequisite for better policy outcomes. The research conducted by Frikkie and his colleagues had revealed disturbing trends. Inflation-adjusted investments in South African public agricultural R&D had flat lined (both absolutely and relative to the size of the agricultural sector).

A new round of work on the partial- and multi-factor productivity performance of South African agriculture was in the works when Frikkie was taken from us. He always took the long view, determinedly stayed the course, and unquestionably would wish his work to continue in the same vein, always with an eye to making a real difference in the lives of those served by the South African farm sector that he knew second to none.

He literally was working on his research in the very last minute of his life. Those of us who knew him miss his wisdom, professional talents, at times endearingly stubborn but always well-meaning nature, and his considerable and wide-ranging storytelling skills. For others, his work will stand as an enduring legacy of a practising agricultural economist who really cared about his craft and the consequences of his work.

Follow me on Twitter (@WandileSihlobo). E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


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