Africans must shake off their dependence on traditional agricultural aid from Europe and improve trade ties to address their food and poverty challenges, Nigeria’s agricultural minister told EurActiv.

The minister, Akinwumi Adesina, also said African countries need to build their own internal market and that the European Union could help by financing ports, highways and railways to make it easier to trade goods on a continent where trade barriers and poor overland connections stymie cooperation.

Foreign aid “is the way that people have relied on to grow agriculture in Africa for too long, and I don’t think it works. I don’t think it works because it is declining, it is not certain, and it displaces private-sector financing or domestic financing in most cases,” Adesina told EurActiv in an interview.

“As the population in the world is rising, demand for food is rising. Africa is where the land is – Africa must take advantage of that to be a solution to the global food problem,” he said. “But to do that, it has to get out of seeing agriculture as a development activity to seeing agriculture as a business. That is not a choice or decision for us, it is a decision we have made for ourselves.”

Adesina’s articulate calls for a shift away from surplus food shipped to Africa or food assistance programmes has made him a fixture at international events such as the World Economic Forum. He spoke last week in Brussels at the Forum for Agriculture, where he criticised his own country’s neglect of farming and domestic food production.

EU’s development framework

The EU’s overseas development programme calls for supporting efforts to build agricultural self-sufficiency in developing nations, of which Nigeria is one despite its vast petroleum assets.

Last month, in its proposals for a future international poverty-fighting framework, the European Commission pledged to support agricultural sustainability, protect land and freshwater, and back rural education and social protection programmes in poor nations. The EU has also committed to expand agricultural trade with sub-Saharan Africa.

But human rights and environmental groups see a downside to trade: investment has opened Africa to exploitation through land-grabs by foreigners who are exporting crops to meet food and biofuel demands.

In a new report, the environmental group Friends of the Earth Europe says land acquisition by foreigners is displacing small farmers – who are the background of African production – and creating competition for often-precious water and resource supplies.

‘Land grabs’

Of the 203 million hectares of foreign land buys between 2000 and 2010, 134 million hectares were in Africa and 29 million hectares in Asia, Friends of the Earth noted in its report - ‘Hidden impacts: How Europe's resource overconsumption promotes global land conflicts’.

“The opaque and duplicitous system of resource ownership in many countries and a lack of legal recognition of customary resource ownership lead to issues such as land grabbing and expulsion of smallholder producers from their lands, often without compensation,” the report says.

The report also blames support programmes like the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy for harming Africa’s export potential by supporting European farmers through artificial price supports.

“Some [trade] agreements with a number of African countries have stalled in the negotiating phase due to African claims that the terms are unfavourable for their economic development. This has been supported by the European Parliament Committee on Development which has referred to some provisions in these agreements as being ‘unacceptable’ which could ‘also damage their emerging economic sectors’.”

Boosting inter-African trade

Adesina says foreigners aren’t always to blame. Africans need to improve their quality standards, the minister says, and build a more integrated agricultural market. The bulk of African farm exports go to the EU while other African countries account for less than 10% of trade in sub-Saharan Africa.

“Regional trade offers perhaps the highest impact in terms of growth of agriculture,” he told EurActiv.

Adesina, who became the agricultural minister in Africa’s largest country in 2011, holds a doctorate in agricultural economics from Purdue University in the United States. He says his own country’s petroleum-dominated economy has taken a toll on agriculture.

“When we discovered petroleum, we abandoned agriculture and we have paid a great price. Nigeria became a net importer of food, spending $11 billion per year importing basic foods like wheat, rice, sugar and fish,” Adesina said in a speech to the Forum for Agriculture on 5 March.

“This is not acceptable, politically, economically or socially. A country that is not self-sufficient in food exposes itself to many risks and jeopardises its national security,” he said.

The country spends 2% of its budget on agriculture, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization reported in its latest annual report.

Nigeria is taking other steps to boost domestic food output. The country has embarked on a campaign to ramp up production of rice and cassava, a starchy root vegetable. It has ambitious plans for developing a horticultural sector for export to the EU.

The government plans to expand a programme that will allow millions of farmers to buy directly from private suppliers using mobile phone payments, a step he says that will remove the government as a middleman.

“We ended four decades of corruption in the fertiliser sector, by taking the government out of the procurement and distribution of fertilisers and seeds,” the minister said.