Zambia has its eye on being a role player in Africa’s transformation

Who is going to farm Africa’s land?

The Nigerian agriculture minister, Akinwumi Adesina, once stated that “potential is important, but nobody eats potential”, thereby summarising one of Africa’s key problems – unlocking its agricultural potential to allow the continent’s growing population to fully benefit from the available resources. Key to unlocking this potential is a population willing to engage in entrepreneurial farming ventures.

The potential

In recent years, there have been mounting concerns regarding the world’s ability to feed its population, not to mention the projected population of nine billion people in 2050. Africa is one of the few regions in the world with vast ranges of land suitable for agricultural activity still unutilised. It is estimated that more than 60% of the globe’s available and unexploited cropland is located in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA).

Private equity investment into Africa, and fund managers’ ability to raise capital for funds dedicated to the continent, are both trending strongly upward. In 2011, private equity investors closed $3bn worth of deals in Africa, up from $890m in 2010. The interest into agricultural companies is fuelled by the fact that Africa has the potential to serve as the world’s bread basket.

The need for farmers

Some of the factors critical to growing Africa’s agricultural sector are research and development, improved economic policies and infrastructure, greater fiscal spending and financial backing, and support organisations. The value of each is self-evident, but another key reason why they matter is that it is necessary to inspire the youth to become farmers.

According to the African Development Bank (AfDB), youth unemployment rates are as high as 25% in many of the countries on the continent, yet many of the youth of today prefer to look for work outside the agricultural sector. By providing the youth with the assistance and opportunity necessary to move from being a subsistence farmer to becoming an emerging commercial farmer, or even a full commercial farmer, the incentive to partake in the sector’s activity will be much greater.

At present the agricultural sector (and the rural environment) is often perceived with negativity. How to change this and promote interest from the youth in the sector is complex and solutions may differ from one country to the next. There may however be some lessons which could be learned from Brazil. Food production in the Latin American country has increased remarkably during the past decades. For example, since 1990 Brazil’s soya bean output rose from barely 15 million tonnes to over 60 million tonnes in 2010, making it the world’s second largest exporter of the commodity. At present, Brazil has thousands of entrepreneurial commercial farmers. This is significant as soya bean is a protein feed that has important implications for all livestock production.

Kenya’s Horticulture Policy recognises three main challenges of engaging youth in horticulture, namely a negative attitude towards agriculture aggravated by the education system and social perceptions, limited access to and ownership of land for farming, and lack of funds to invest in commercial horticulture. Limited or restricted access to land and to credit is widely acknowledged to present a huge impediment to youth who want to stay in agriculture.

In Ghana’s policy documents, low productivity, lack of innovation and low incomes are given as some of the reasons why young people do not want to enter agriculture. This appears to bear out policy prescriptions to raise productivity and income from farming as a way of attracting younger people. The youth desires the government to invest in new technologies and inputs, readily available and accessible credit, remunerative prices paid for produce, and infrastructure and social support services in rural areas.

Youth may tend to think of farming not as an occupation, but as a business venture, which requires capital investment and innovation. According to the Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), lack of support to improve productivity and to bring innovation into the agricultural sector has in many ways pushed people away from business opportunities in agriculture and into more attractive sectors like information and communication technology (ICT) or finance. The key point is that young people need both the opportunity and the incentive to stay in agriculture. In this regard, it may also be important to develop value chains, which creates greater opportunity for increased income.

AGRA feels that it is important to invest in education at all levels, to support agricultural innovation, to build market infrastructure and improve the business environment in ways that will raise incomes and expand the agriculture value chain.

The importance of stable markets

In addition, it is necessary to support the millions of smallholder farmers by helping them become part of overall economic activity. If each smallholder farmer were able to increase production to a level where surpluses are common, it still would not benefit the farmers if there are no markets on which excesses can be sold.

Zimbabwe was formerly known as the bread basket of Southern Africa as its tropical climate provided food crop growing opportunities year-round. After its economic collapse during most of the 2000s, the country’s agricultural economy rebounded during 2009-11. However, the rich soils of the landlocked country are today increasingly covered with tobacco plants while its wheat and corn production has seen a disappointing recovery in output over the past few years.

There also exists good potential for cash crops in Africa. With many farmers still only producing staples, the introduction of cash crops (for which there generally exists a good market) could see many smallholder enterprises become more profitable, thereby raising their incomes. This in turn could help smallholders transform their activities to a more commercial scale.

The Economist recently argued that “the only way the world can feed seven billion mouths nutritiously is by forming cross-stakeholder alliances (governments, private sector, agencies, charities, donors) that reconcile a multinational’s need for profit with a smallholder’s need for income, a mother’s need to feed her baby and a nation’s need for food security. Partnerships that develop Africa’s agricultural base, which help rural communities by creating stable markets for smallholders, can do just that.” (‘Let markets play their part in feeding the world’, 11 June 2012.)

Smallholders cannot be expected to en masse find or create stable markets for their farm produce.

Partnerships with governments, private companies, development organisations, and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are required to create and sustain a stable market environment that would encourage a smallholder farmer to produce more food. Based on research by CropLife International, we argue that these entities could support smallholders in bringing more food to market by improving transport infrastructure, expanding access to financing for farmers, boosting farm productivity, and providing social services to rural communities.

David Okwara

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