The Case for Change
There are, essentially, two truths today about African agriculture: significant progress has been made, and there is potential for much more . Building agricultural ecosystems can boost social cohesion, drive beneficial continental and global trade, and create millions of jobs for Africa.
What Has Hampered Africa’s Development?
Many factors have hampered Africa from reaching its full potential. As its population has doubled overall and tripled in urban areas in the past 30 years, agricultural production and food security have had to keep pace. Africa is the only continent where the absolute number of undernourished people has increased over the past 30 years.
There are many reasons for the challenges, but three in particular stand out.
A multitude of (somewhat uncoordinated) initiatives. There are many great initiatives, with local and foreign funding, that aim to enhance the state of agriculture in Africa. However in many cases these programs are fairly uncoordinated, often have overlapping mandates, and, to a certain extent, compete against one another for funding and private investments. Pan-African coordination and focus is critical to the future.
Good ideas but not enough implementation. Forests have been harvested to produce the paper to document all of the strategies that have been developed. Through the years, countless commitments have been made and plans have been developed. Although progress has been made, now is the time for this to be all translated into concerted action.
Insufficiently developed ecosystems. The ecosystems required to develop a solid agricultural market in Africa are often underdeveloped in terms of political commitment, the quality of government, infrastructure availability, and regulatory frameworks, among other factors. There is a need for a true commitment among governments and stakeholders to put the basics in place to make these ecosystems happen.
Africa’s Agricultural Transformation at Three Levels
The value chain from farmer to market is central to any potential transformation of Africa’s agriculture. Transformation at three levels can bring broad benefits to this farmer-to-market value chain:
Smallholders contribute up to 80 percent of Sub-Saharan Africa’s food supply, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, and Africa has an estimated 33 million smallholder farms, according to the International Finance Corporation. Increasing farmer capabilities would increase Africa’s output and, as a consequence, help solve Africa’s poverty and malnutrition crisis.
Farmer-level transformation should seek to increase yields, reduce post-harvest losses, improve market access, and increase product margins. Transformation requires granular-level interventions that form the basis for sustained economic and societal success. Enablement in areas such as education, infrastructure, water management, and regulations is crucial as well. Public-private initiatives can ensure capability-building support and the development of structures in areas like financing.
These initiatives are, by nature, very local. However, they can be facilitated from a pan-African perspective in three ways:
- Best practice sharing. Providing a best-practice clearinghouse for farmer associations and governments.
- Support of governments. Aiding governments in skills development and coordinating cross-country initiatives.
- Public-private partnership initiatives. Creating a first “port of call” for large corporate and institutional investors to ensure investments’ effectiveness and coordination.
Eight specific actions will optimize and grow the entire value chain. These are:
- Bring innovation to existing farm dynamics
- Improve access to markets
- Apply technology to increase market transparency
- Enhance farmer financing models
- Use targeted government enablement
- Empower women
- Empower youth
- Encourage sustainable agriculture practices
Let’s Get Going
A few key numbers highlight the opportunity—and the challenge. To meet growing global food demand, production must increase by an estimated 50 percent by 2030. Sub-Saharan Africa’s 33 million smallholder farms—a number that will increase rapidly as the population continues to increase—contribute up to 80 percent of the region’s food supply. Improving the odds of prosperity for these farmers lies at the heart of prosperity for African agriculture.
Success at the farmer, market, and cluster levels requires assistance from many sources.
Governments need to focus on significantly improving the enabling environment for local agriculture, particularly as it comes to land rights, infrastructure, market access, and elevating women’s roles in society.
Pan-African institutions such as the African Union can help develop cluster opportunities across the continent and promote intra-Africa trade and best practice sharing.
The private sector can help invest with funds and knowhow, understanding that Africa’s potential for growth and its untapped arable land offer huge opportunities in spite of the risks. Public-private partnerships can unlock value, as long as both sides share the onus of success.
No longer must Africa go hat-in-hand to feed its vibrant and resourceful population. It can help its own people feed themselves, their villages, towns, and countries. As scale and quality develop, export markets from the continent can flourish, leading increasingly to not just poverty alleviation but wealth creation. As more inhabitants see the promise of a better future in agriculture, many more clusters will be developed, truly making Africa the breadbasket that the world so desperately hungers for.
It can be done. Now is the time to put our shoulders to the wheel.