Agriculture in Africa: How far, how well?

Agriculture in Africa: What’s our Evaluation? How Far Can We Go?

Agriculture in Africa

Agriculture has the greatest potential to lift the African continent out of poverty and alleviate hunger, but the sector has struggled to perform in recent history, with reforms happening excruciatingly slowly. According to the World Bank, agriculture contributes 32% to Africa’s GDP and provides employment to 65% of the labour force on the
continent. In fact, in many countries in Africa, up to 85% of the workforce is employed in the agricultural sector. Furthermore, an estimated 38% of Africa’s working youth is presently employed in the agricultural sector. Despite these numbers, African soil remains greatly underutilised and the continent still imports a substantial deal of its food needs.
According to Trade Map, African countries imported about US$94bn worth of agricultural products during 2013, compared to exports amounting to about US$60bn. In addition to the significant labour resources as yet untapped, Africa is home to millions of hectares of unexploited arable land. It is estimated that about 60% of the world’s available and unexploited cropland is in sub-Saharan Africa.

Africa's Agricultural Imports (2011-13)

Africa’s Agricultural Imports (2011-13)

Furthermore, only between 5% and 7% of the continent’s cultivated land is irrigated, which leaves farmers exposed to the elements. Given the nature of African agriculture, where a large proportion of farmers are smallholders or
subsistence-based, it is essential to invest in and develop accessibility to quality inputs, markets for produce, good soils and soil management techniques, innovative finance tools and other resources needed for sustained agricultural
production. Moreover, the lion’s share of African farmers use non-modern techniques in their production process and this limits their productivity, while the lack of irrigation leaves them exceedingly vulnerable to weather shocks and often lacking adequate inputs, efficient markets and the necessary technology to ramp up production to levels beyond personal use.

Growth Catalyst

The key drivers which could see the African agricultural sector shift to a higher growth trajectory are all rooted in government policy. With subsistence and small scale farming forming the bulk of agricultural activities on the continent, the provision of co-operative structures, financial backing, stable markets, improved infrastructure and knowledge sharing initiatives all stem from government and organisational structures on all levels. Unfortunately, there is not one blueprint that fits all the regions on the continent and some countries have fared better than others in this regard. Government and multilateral organisations need to focus on spreading skills and knowledge, increasing fertiliser use, increasing the availability of financing, implementing technologies to improve yields – including research into improved seed varieties – and improving infrastructure. If reforms are implemented efficiently, these focus areas will combine to lead to significant increases in yields in order for Africa to feed itself and ultimately lift a large proportion of the population out of extreme poverty.

David Okwara

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