This article is part of our special report Sustainable farming.
Africa’s huge agricultural potential holds the promise of covering much of the planet’s nutrition needs, but the continent is hampered by lack of infrastructure and intricate local politics.
In an effort to respond to the global food security issue, agribusinesses have expanded their activities in the developing world, with a special focus on Africa’s rich soils.
The move is seen with suspicion by environmental campaigners, which warn that turning to a Western type agri-food production model will only increase farmers’ dependence, leading them to long-term deadlock.
Declining poverty and rising population
The economy of the Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) region has seen remarkable improvements over the past decades.
World Bank figures show that the number of people living on less than $1.25 a day, has declined by 23% between 1993 and 2015.
According to the latest estimates in the 2015 State of Food Insecurity in the World, hunger in the region declined by 31% in the period 1990-2015, by no means a small achievement. Today, approximately one out of four persons in SSA is estimated to be undernourished, considerably less than in the 1980s.
But the food and farming conundrum in Sub-Saharan Africa is far from being solved. First, the region is challenged with rapid population growth which affects the ability to ensure stable supply and access to food.
Second, Sub-Saharan Africa’s current population is 800 million and its economy remains deeply rooted in traditional farming. Agriculture employed 62% of the population and generated 27% of GDP in the region in 2005.
Smallholder farms, defined as being two hectares or less are dominant in the region’s agriculture model. According to estimates by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), 80% of farmland in sub-Saharan Africa is managed by smallholders working on up to 10 hectares.
The issue does not only concern Africa. On a global level, the UN says more than 90% of the 570 million farms worldwide are managed by an individual or a family, producing more than 80% of the world’s food.
Scientists have warned that in order to prevent a food crisis, pre-emptive measures should be taken to make these small-scale farms sustainable while avoiding intensive resource use.
Africa’s “green” revolution
To help meet those goals, the 10-year-old Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) focuses on smallholder farms to meet the various environmental challenges of the region, like seed production and soil health. A further objective is to open up a rich agriculture market which has been neglected all these years.
It brings together public and private sector working directly with African farmers, businesses, and governments.
AGRA argues that it has helped African farmers increase their production, resulting in direct household consumption and surpluses for the market.
According to AGRA’s 2015 report, in 2015 smallholder households produced about 3.4 million additional metric tons of cereals, soybeans and groundnuts for their own consumption as well as 1.5 million metric tons surplus for the market.
“Over the past nine years, AGRA and its partners have worked across 18 sub-Saharan African countries to deliver a set of solutions that have reached 18.2 million farm families,” AGRA’s Dr Richard Jones told euractiv.com.
However, many challenges still lie ahead, mainly on a logistical level.
According to Dr Jones, the rapid population increase and high rates of urbanisation have exacerbated the need to increase local production through increased productivity.
“Local growth and development will come about not only from production but from aggregation, transport and value addition. The volumes required to meet the growing food requirements cannot be met by imports alone for the simple reason that the existing infrastructure is already challenged,” he stressed.
He added that the large numbers of widely-dispersed smallholder farmers who are poorly organised make it hard to deliver services and productivity-improving technologies on the input side.
“The costs of aggregating small quantities of surplus production from these widely dispersed smallholder farmers is logistically challenging,” he said, adding that the high costs of transport often make locally-produced grain more expensive than the imported one.
Another problem for smallholder farmers is the lack of access to productivity enhancing technologies such as quality seeds of superior varieties, mineral fertilisers, and crop protection products.
“The limited number of commercial seed companies, inappropriate government policies hindering the release of farmer-preferred varieties, lack of enforcement in quality control, and limited support for commercial distribution systems are some of the reasons,” he noted.
Tanzania’s agricultural “corridor”
Attempts to overcome these myriad of local obstacles have focused on the creation of local transportation and distribution corridors.
One of them is the Southern Agricultural Growth Corridor of Tanzania (SAGCOT), an agricultural multi-stakeholder partnership between the Tanzanian government, agri-corporations, donors, and NGOs.
Its main objective is to develop the region’s potential including productivity, food security and livelihoods and achieve a “Green Revolution” in Tanzania.
Initiated at the World Economic Forum Africa summit in May 2010, several stakeholders try to go beyond raising agricultural productivity and attract investments in several areas – roads, electricity, policy reform – to create an efficient and well-functioning agricultural chain.
Oslo-based fertiliser company Yara recently invested $25 million in a terminal in Tanzania and wants the country to become a national and regional hub for fertiliser distribution. Yara currently supplies 120,000 tons of fertiliser annually to the East African region, including through a network of distribution outlets across Tanzania.
Environmentalist NGOs, however, are concerned about such activities in Africa.
Increasing farmers’ dependence
Greenpeace EU agriculture policy director Marco Contiero told EURACTIV that G8 governments’ investments in developing countries’ agriculture, such as via the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition in Africa (NAFSN), have indicated that they operate in close contact with the private sector.
“This has, for instance, led country beneficiaries of international funds to modify or put in place biosafety legislation to set up the right legal framework allowing agro-chemical companies to market their patented seeds.”
He said that instead of external inputs such as seeds, chemical pesticides and synthetic fertilisers, the focus of governments should be on the actual needs of the population, “namely building infrastructures, storage facilities and irrigation systems”.
“These countries do not need (GM) seeds, even if it is true that they have very poor quality seeds, but their problem is that they don’t have silos to store their harvests, nor streets to bring their harvest to the market, nor functional markets where to sell their products”.
“This sends a very worrying signal,” the Greenpeace activist said, underlining that focusing Africa’s development on input-dependent agriculture is the “opposite of sustainable”.
The agri-food industry’s activities in Africa often come under environmentalist NGOs scrutiny.
One recent example is the British company Agrica which received millions in support from international aid donors to establish an industrial rice plantation in Tanzania as part of a SAGCOT project.
According to a research by The Oakland Institute in collaboration with Greenpeace Africa and Global Justice Now, the project had a devastating impacts on local communities.
“Although Agrica is portrayed as a responsible investment venture, its takeover of fertile land has brought misery to local communities,” Anuradha Mittal, Executive Director of the Oakland Institute said.
She claimed that smallholders were forced off the land, received meagre compensation for their losses, and had to face debts resulting from doing business with Agrica.
An official response was sent by Agrica, denying the accusations.