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By Phumza Dyani, Pan African chamber of Commerce Chief Innovation Officer

Africa should be in a great position to feed itself and play a significant role in feeding about nine billion people by 2050. For this to be realised, however, significant reforms have to be made to leverage the current standing optimally.

The World Economic Forum reports that the African continent has 65% of the uncultivated arable land left in the world and creates about 60% of the continent’s employment. Africa boasts a wide diversity of agro-ecological zones, heavy rain-forest vegetation with bi-annual rainfall to relatively sparse, dry and arid vegetation with low uni-modal rainfall is positioned to be a World’s supplier of Agricultural produce.

To put some flesh to the possibility of Africa’s agriculture sector concept, the Millennium Development Goals Report point out that there is vast potential with respect to the continental mix of agricultural commodities and products which can be produced and marketed in domestic and external markets.

With these factors at play, it is a mockery to find that Africa is still stuck with a burden of being a net food importing region, spending $35 billion annually (African Development Bank). It is a great concern that major parts of the continent’s populations still live in rural areas under extreme poverty conditions.

Economist, Ha-Joon Chang, advises African governments that for their countries to grow and develop in the global marketplace they need to industrialise and take advantage of their comparative advantage. It is time for Africa to decisively take advantage of its agriculture sector. Importantly, taking agriculture as a business, not a way of life. African countries need to pursue policies and programmes that will allow the continent to become a net food exporting region, while using agricultural industrialisation to add value to processed foods and export commodities. Technological Innovation should be at the centre of this and what we do with the African agriculture sector, today, will determine the future of food in the world as well as the continent’s livelihood.

It goes without saying that the fundamentals need to be in place and an understanding that the differences in the agro-ecological zones implies diversity and that there are no universal solutions to agricultural development problems across the continent. However, universally, massive developments of subsistence farmers, addressing the land ownership issues across the continent, developing skills as well as enabling access to funding and markets are seemingly consistent across the board.

Beyond this AgriTech, driven by technologies such as drought management, crop protection and yield enhancement, can also contribute substantially to employment and wealth creation as well as to the improvement of health and nutrition on the continent. Modern Agriculture can also attract the youth into industry ensuring sustainability of food supply. Africa can do it and can learn from strides made by countries like India. In the 60s and early 70s, India was a food importer. It took three years for India to be a gigantic food supplier to the world by simply a strong political will and driving transformative reforms.

Chang indicates that there are certain aspects African states need to do themselves and from a policy perspective driving import substitution is one approach to economic development. Africa needs to avoid importing goods (purchasing external goods and products from outside countries). This is not a taboo approach, but a policy that was once adapted by the Latin American countries when they were also developing. Not only Latin American countries, but South Africa during the apartheid day’s in particular when it faced boycotts from the international economy had to consider import substitution and developed the capacity to manufacture certain goods and products domestically (defensive approach). When goods and products for instance are imported, more employment opportunities are created from the countries where the goods and products are manufactured and this comes at the expense of your own people because they are not involved in the production work.  

Technology is key in helping to drive growth in the industry and development of rural infrastructure is a key enabler to catalysing the industry to new levels. Africa has been challenged with driving rural connectivity due to the scale of the investments required for minimal returns. However, the traditional commercial models need to be reviewed as well as participation of the private sector encouraged. The rapid pace of growth in the use of drones, automated tractors, artificial intelligence, robotics and blockchains, albeit sporadic, are transforming agriculture. Smart farming and technological innovation is boosting productivity, but more education, connectivity and funding is required.   

In South Africa for example there’s a National Broadband Project called SA Connect which is currently underway with the objective of connecting rural schools and hospitals. Agriculture as a result has an opportunity to benefit from the massive infrastructure development. Additional to it are moves being made to avail the much needed spectrum for cost-effective deployment of connectivity in the rural communities. The bold moves made by South Africa in the recent publication at the Sustainable Infrastructure Development Symposium South Africa (SIDSSA), which commit to investments in infrastructure for Agriculture and Agro-processing for about U$D1,64bn is a strategic move which recognises the importance of the Industry in driving growth. Additionally, the Government’s focus on recapitalising the Land Bank is a good move which will encourage growth and funding of the industry.

We are also seeing a concerted effort at an AU level, where the African Development Bank has set a vision for the agriculture and rural development sector with an objective for it to assume a leading catalytic role, within the next decade. The Bank’s bold objectives through its Feed Africa programme are:

  • contribute to eliminating extreme poverty in Africa by 2025;
  • end hunger and malnutrition in Africa by 2025;
  • make Africa a net food exporter; and,
  • move Africa to the top of export-orientated global value chains where it has comparative advantage

These bold objectives backed by action are what is required to drive progress. We have seen bold action from the bank through the Bank’s Technologies for African Agriculture Transformation (TAAT) framework which aims to expand access to agricultural yield-enhancing technologies, including high-yielding and bio-fortified staple crops. TAAT aims to reach 40 million farmers with improved food technologies by 2025.

We equally have to recognise the strides that have been made in country reforms which have paid off and should be a blueprint of what success looks like. To mention a few, Ethiopia and Rwanda’s rapid and material reductions in the level of malnutrition is worth recognition. Ethiopia has been pursuing agricultural led industrialization (ADLI) strategy in the past two decades believing that investing in agriculture and increase in land yields to be preconditions for successful industrialization, urbanization and development. Agriculture in Ethiopia accounts for 36.3 percent of the GDP and continues to contribute meaningfully to the economy. In Rwanda, the Government has targeted agriculture as the main engine of economic growth, implementing transformational policies that foster increased agricultural productivity since independence. The results are tangible and impactful in the fight against poverty.

Further up in the North West of Africa, Senegal has made some commendable strides in the transformation of the rice sector, by successfully integrating mechanical tools and technologies into the rice value chain in the Senegal River Valley. 46 per cent of the Senegalese population is employed in the agriculture sector, albeit still a lower contribution to GDP.

Tunisia’s transformation over the past five years into the foremost global exporter of olive oil accounting for around 40% of the world’s organic olive oil production. Tunisia’s agricultural sector won the Special Prize of the Best Performance for 2020 in the 33rd African Union Summit held on February 9-10 2020 in Addis-Ababa, Ethiopia. The prize is awarded to countries which have been able to implement the Malabo Declaration on the Accelerated Agricultural Growth and Transformation for Shared Prosperity and Improved Livelihoods in Africa.

All these strides were achieved through integration of technology in the value chains. It goes without saying that technological innovations in Agriculture are crucial for developing productivity and scale, while at the same time optimising yield and reducing waste. To scale, Africa needs to prioritise connectivity as a conduit to growing the Industry. According to Dr. Akinwumi Adesina, the AFDB The transformation of African agriculture requires a shift from the highly diversified, subsistence-oriented farming activity towards a more commercially-oriented agriculture with improved access to markets and agro-industry. It involves a greater reliance on input and output markets and increased integration of agriculture with other sectors of the domestic and international economies. It also involves a more efficient and balanced use of indigenous knowledge and “modern” scientific knowledge.

Equally important is moving Agriculture up the value chain through Industrialisation efforts. It is absurd to know that Africa produces approximately 69.2% of the world’s cocoa beans by weight, but receives only 2% of the revenue of global sales of chocolate. This is telling that focus on only hard work of tilting the land with traditional methods as well low yield outcomes does not benefit Africa especially for major agro-ecological zones such as the sub humid Guinea Savannah and the semi-arid Sahel regions where more than half of the population live on less than $1.25 per day. Low productivity also damages the competitiveness of African agriculture. If nothing is done, the number of extremely poor people will rise from 420 million in 2015 to 550 million by 2025.