African agriculture is a sleeping giant: the odds are against Africa's farmers, but the potential for economic growth is huge. It's time to wake up the giant with action on policy, investment and technology, writes Strive Masiyiwa.
Strive Masiyiwa is a member of the Africa Progress Panel, founder and chairman of Econet Wireless, co-chair of GROW Africa, and chairman of the Board of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa.
Launching a business can be hard work, especially in Africa, where weak governance systems and inconsistent access to critical resources impede success. For Africa’s farmers, the challenges are particularly pronounced. Given the vast economic and social benefits of a dynamic and modern agricultural sector, providing farmers with the incentives, investments, and regulations that they need to succeed should become a top priority.
The recent boom in Africa’s telecommunications sector – which has revolutionized entire industries, not to mention people’s lifestyles – demonstrates just how effective such an approach can be. There are more than a half-billion mobile connections on the continent today; indeed, in many respects, Africa leads the world in mobile growth and innovation.
Why has Africa been unable to replicate that growth in the agriculture sector? Why, instead of bumper crops, does Africa have an annual food-import bill of $35 billion? According to the Africa Progress Panel’s latest annual report, Grain, Fish, Money – Financing Africa’s Green and Blue Revolutions, the problem is straightforward: the odds are stacked against Africa’s farmers.
This is particularly true for smallholder farmers, most of whom are women. These farmers, who cultivate plots about the size of one or two football fields, typically lack reliable irrigation systems and quality inputs, such as seeds and soil supplements. Moreover, they rarely earn enough to invest in the needed machinery, and cannot gain access to credit.
As if that were not enough, farmers are facing increasingly volatile climate conditions that increase the likelihood that their crops will fail. Maize yields, for example, are set to decline by one-quarter over the course of the twenty-first century. And, when the crops are ready, farmers face major obstacles – including inadequate rural road systems and a lack of cold storage facilities – in delivering them to the market.
Despite these risks, which dwarf those faced by the telecoms industry, Africa’s smallholders remain as efficient as their larger counterparts – a testament to their tenacity and resilience. Yet, instead of supporting farmers, African governments have erected even more obstacles to growth, including excessive taxation, insufficient investment, and coercive policies.
Africa’s farmers need an enabling environment that enables them to overcome the challenges they face. In such a context, the continent’s agricultural sector could unleash a revolution akin to that fueled by the communications industry.
The good news is that both the private and public sectors – motivated by soaring demand for food, especially in Africa’s rapidly growing cities, and rising global food prices – seem ready to propel this shift. Private firms have begun to channel investment toward Africa’s agricultural sector, including through initiatives like Grow Africa (of which I am co-Chair), which facilitates cooperation between national governments and more than a hundred local, regional, and international companies to achieve targets for agricultural growth. Over the last two years, these firms have pledged more than $7.2 billion in agricultural investment.
For their part, African governments and development partners, recognizing the central role that agriculture can play in their economic-development agendas, have begun to reverse a three-decade decline in public investment in agriculture. In fact, agriculture has the potential to reduce poverty twice as fast as any other sector.
The impact of such efforts is already becoming apparent in many parts of the continent. From Ghana to Rwanda, high levels of agricultural investment are fueling impressive economic growth in rural areas, thereby boosting job creation and reducing poverty and hunger.
But these gains remain fragile. To sustain them, African governments must recommit to the African Union’s Maputo Declaration on Agriculture and Food Security, which includes a pledge to channel at least 10% of their budgets toward agricultural investment. And, they must provide farmers with the infrastructure, energy supplies, and supportive policies that they need in order to get their products to the market.
The communications sector also has a key role to play. Mobile technology has already begun to transform Africa’s agricultural industry, by providing farmers with valuable information like market prices, input support through e-vouchers, and even access to credit. Many of these innovative services are more accessible to African smallholders than they are to their American or European counterparts.
Finally, private-sector actors, farmers’ organizations, and civil-society groups must cooperate to advance agricultural development. For example, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, supplies high-quality seeds – many of which are drought-resistant – to millions of smallholder farmers across the continent.
The African Union has declared 2014 the Year of Agriculture and Food Security in Africa. With broad action on policy, investment, and technology, Africa’s farmers can double their productivity within five years. It is time to give the agriculture sector the opportunity that all Africans need to usher in an era of shared prosperity.
© Project Syndicate, 2014.