With Commodities Crashing and Climates Changing, Time to go All-In on African Agriculture

Dr. Agnes Kalibata Agriculture & Environment NEWS & ANALYSIS

If there was ever a time to make agriculture the centrepiece of Africa’s economic development agenda, then surely that time is now.
Consider the major challenge which has emerged in sub-Saharan Africa this year. As the El Niño-related drought crippled food production in significant parts of eastern and southern Africa, the crash of commodity prices has exposed raw material exports for what they always were: an unreliable foundation for economic growth.

The remedy demands significant investments from both the public and private sector to generate the knowledge, technology and market opportunities needed to unleash the economic potential of African agriculture. These same investments can help farmers gain access to what they need to adapt to challenging growing conditions, which are becoming increasingly common thanks to climate change.

It might seem puzzling to some, this idea of agriculture as the engine that can power African economies. But many students of economic history understand that whether it is Europe and America 100 years ago or Asia and Latin America in more recent times, the development of a strong agriculture sector is the critical first step towards creating a diverse and prosperous economy.

One reason why agriculture is the launch pad for broader economic progress is that it is particularly effective at reducing poverty among the poorest of the poor. That is especially important for African countries, where 50% to 85% of the population work as farmers and many live in poverty. Estimates show that in most developing countries, growth in agriculture is generally twice as effective at reducing poverty compared to growth in other sectors. In sub-Saharan Africa, there is evidence that it could be up to 11 times more effective.
So agriculture is not just about feeding people. It is about feeding our economic future. That is why the organization I now lead, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), exists. We want to put farmers at the top of Africa’s economic agenda.

The Futility of Subsistence Farming

It can be tempting, particularly for people outside of Africa, to romanticize the notion of the subsistence farmer, tirelessly working the land to grow just enough food to feed the family. But think about what that means. If the majority of your population are subsistence farmers, then it means the majority is focused solely on mere survival. That is a recipe for economic stagnation if there ever was one.
What if we flipped the script and created a situation where farmers are earning incomes and using it to invest in their families and communities? Then, everything changes.

There are a growing number of us in Africa today who want to take each and every farmer and move them from subsistence to market-oriented agriculture. But this not a call for industrial-scale farms.
The power of agriculture to reduce poverty and stimulate an economic renaissance in Africa lies with improving the fortunes of smallholder farmers. They produce the majority of what Africa eats and they figure prominently in transforming African agriculture from subsistence to profit. But we have to change their reality, from farming as a solitary struggle to survive to farming as a viable source of income linked to Africa’s rapidly growing food markets.

One Trillion Reasons for Investing in African Agriculture

Africa today has considerable agriculture assets. It is home to almost half of the world’s remaining uncultivated land potentially available for farming – meaning land that is not forested or protected. And while some talk of African countries becoming the bread basket for the world, the most promising food market for African farmers may be Africa itself.

According to the World Bank, Africa’s rapidly growing urban areas could create a $1 trillion regional market for food products by 2013. That is undoubtedly a huge potential. The challenge now is to make sure that market is owned and operated by African farmers and African food companies.

For the last 10 years, AGRA has worked to build a network of partnerships which have reached 15 million smallholder farmers across 18 countries. We have learned a lot about the knowledge, services and technology African farmers and local agriculture businesses need to succeed. Based on that experience, here are just just a few of the areas we believe should be prioritised.

Access to Inputs

A lack of two basic ingredients of farming – improved seeds and fertilizers – is a key reason yields on African farms are far below what farmers elsewhere in the world produce. But we routinely observe that when we help farmers gain access to sufficient and varied inputs, yields typically double or triple. I recently visited a farm in Malawi in an area where we had worked to increase access to sweet potato vines. While the drought in Malawi was desiccating maize crops and spreading hunger, farmers planting sweet potatoes were harvesting a surplus – enough to feed their families and sell at market.

Financial Services

We constantly look for innovative ways to help smallholder farmers get financial support for investing in production improvements. For example, we are working with the MasterCard Foundation to help unlock US $15.5 million to support financial services, insurance payments and credit for 700,000 smallholder farmers in Ghana, Kenya and Tanzania.

Post-Harvest Management

The value of producing a surplus is far less when a third or more is wasted due to poor storage, lack of processing, or poor connections with markets, which is unfortunately commonplace on African farms. We’re now partnering with the Rockefeller Foundation on a programme in southern Tanzania called “YieldWise” which is focused on ensuring farmers can make the most of their production gains.
Market Opportunities: There are many options for helping farmers increase market opportunities. We have worked with numerous farmer groups to establish aggregation centres where farmers can combine their harvests to meet buyer demands for higher quantities. We have also helped establish innovative business arrangements, like a partnership in Mozambique that brings farmers together with a field processor and a major brewing company to grow and process cassava, which is used to make beer.

Supportive Policies

Governments need to focus on what they do best and let the private sector handle the rest. For example, we have worked with governments to make it easier for African entrepreneurs to launch seed companies that serve smallholder farmers. This has helped establish about 100 companies which are now producing approximately 475,000 metric tons of seed. Many sell out of all they can produce, evidence of pent-up demand among smallholder farmers.

Governments Investing in Agriculture

We need governments across sub-Saharan Africa to honour their commitments to invest 10% of national budgets in agriculture. That is less than the 11% to 14% that fuelled Asia’s growth. But over the last 10 years, many countries –such as Ghana, Togo, Zambia, Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Ethiopia and Malawi – have seen increased investments in agriculture lead to reductions in hunger and poverty.

Perhaps most importantly, all of these efforts need to be integrated into a cohesive package. And that is where things are getting very interesting in Africa today.

No More Pilot Projects: Transformation at Country Scale

Today AGRA is in the midst of a major transition. We are taking our hard-won expertise in seeds, soils and markets – along with finance and policy – and scaling it all up as a full package of agriculture solutions for smallholder farmers. We are moving beyond pilot projects and targeting an entire country’s agriculture sector.

Just in the last few months, we held extensive consultations in Tanzania, Ghana, Mali, Burkina Faso, Kenya, Mozambique and Malawi. Through productive dialogues with governments, donors, civil society and private sector partners, we have reached consensus on detailed strategies for pursuing large and sustainable economic growth that is driven by smallholder farmers and includes options that would help farmers adapt to climate change.

The support we are seeing for these very ambitious, country-wide plans tells that an alignment of interests is emerging, a consensus that it is time to go all in on agriculture in Africa – to embrace the market potential of smallholder agriculture in order to improve food security, create jobs and build a future for Africa, just as it did in Latin America and Asia.

As the former president of Nigeria has said, agriculture can be the new oil for much of Africa – but better, actually. It can bring prosperity that is shared across all income levels, something oil has never done for Africa.

One reason I am optimistic about the future is that I routinely go into villages where farmers are now starting to earn $50 or even $100 a season from their labours. And you can see the change in their facial expressions, their posture, their sense of focus and determination. When farmers prosper, it sends good vibrations through the whole economy.

That is what motivates me. And if you have seen what I have seen – the potential of our economies when our smallholder farmers are doing well – then you will see this so-called commodities crash and our recent encounter with drought for what they are: an opportunity to make agriculture a top priority on the African economic agenda, in the public and private sector; and a time to put smallholders at the centre of this agenda, and bet on them.

Written by

Dr. Agnes Kalibata leads AGRA’s efforts, with the participation of public and private partners, towards ensuring a food-secure Africa through rapid, sustainable agricultural growth and improved productivity by empowering millions of smallholder farmers. She is a former Minister of Agriculture and Animal Resources in Rwanda and is widely considered to be one of the most successful Agriculture Ministers in sub-Saharan Africa. Dr. Kalibata has held several other leadership positions, including Permanent Secretary of Ministry of Agriculture and Deputy Vice Chancellor of University of Rwanda.