But, how about the African agriculture?

By Inge Gerremo, Senior Advisor at SLU Global.  

Why do African and European leaders of today make partly the same mistakes as they did in connection with the independence of most African countries fifty years ago, why do they again seem to forget that the basis for about 70% of the population still is agriculture?

I followed with great interest the reports from the High-level meeting between African and European leaders in Abidjan at the end of November last year. The theme, with focus on Africa´s young generation, was migration, jobs, economy, investments, peace and security and governance. The meeting was overshadowed by horrifying reports on numerous young Africans, mostly men, desparately trying to cross the Mediteranian to Europe with the hope for a better life there. I also listen, a few days ago, to the speech of the Italian Prime Minister, Paolo Gentiloni, where he proposed setting up a special Africa military force, G5-Sahel, in order to prevent an increasing number of young Africans coming to Europe. These examples of recent efforts of immediate actions leeds me to remind us about the long-term challenges for African development and what then is absolutely neccessary.

We know, based on the development of almost all countries, that the most effective way to start improving the situation for developing countries and to combat poverty is through agricultural development. This is also true if your focus is on the young Africans of today. Such ambitions, giving priority to the agricultural sector, can create new jobs, increase incomes, improve the nutritional status etc all important ingrediences to become middle-income countries. Brazil, China and Vietnam have become such successful countries. Also a number of African countries have embarked on this journey, according to UNU-WIDER´s comprehensive report, Growth and Poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa, from 2016. Ethiopia, Ghana, Uganda and Rwanda are among them, but often the development pace has slowed down or come to a standstill because of lacking engagement from the national leaders. Malawi was, a few years ago, such a promising example.

We have to admit that few areas are so complex to develop as agriculture with it´s many links to a great number of other central sectors. A genuine engagement from the government is needed having both long-term and sustainable perspectives in mind. You can seldom fulfill all ambitions and goals at the same time. Instead you need a distinct plan which could be gradually fulfilled. Especially important are the leaders willingness to see this challenge as a joint venture together with the people in both rural and urban areas.

Except for traditional objectives like economic growth and poverty alleviation governments of today also have to include a number of other development goals within the recently adopted Agenda 2030, the Paris agreement on climate, gender issues, biodiversity etc. All of them are of utmost importance in the long run. It is, however, not suitable, as often done today, to look upon the agricultural sector as more or less a residual in these development efforts. This seems to have become the way also the Swedish government tries to handle this important area when setting the priorities for Swedish development cooperation. Instead you have to start the other way around and look upon the absolutely neccessary agricultural development as the starting point for agricultural development and at the same time the basis for integrating also these other important goals in the work of the African countries.

Africa is an extremely rich continent with an enormous development potential. However, only talking about that potential could not feed today´s population of 1,1 billion people and which, according to UN statistics, is expected to increase to 2,4 billion (medium scenario) by 2050. There are still huge areas of arable land in Africa, south of Sahara. About 200 million ha or almost half of the Worlds land reserve for agriculture, is available on this continent. Even more important are the possibilities to more effectively and more sustainably use the land already cultivated. About 70% of today´s job opportunities are, as mentioned earlier, found these rural areas. African agriculture is at least to 50% managed by female farmers. There are about 33 million farms with an acerage less than 2 ha. The average age of African farmers is today very high, but at the same time 60% of Africans are under 24 years of age.

The number of young Africans that every year could enter the labour market is enormous and was by 2015 calculated to about 330 million. Against that background it is easy to understand that a number of them tries to leave for eg Europe to seek new opportunities. Shall that trend be changed, the African agriculture must, no doubt, be developed and give hope for the future, even if not all young Africans will see a role of their own in that field as also has been the case in Europe.

The African Union´s so called Malabo Declaration from 2014 once again underlined the priority of agriculture as key for Africa´s development. In that declaration African leaders confirmed their obligations from the Maputo Declaration in 2003, that at least 10% of public investments shall go to agriculture with the ambition to reach at least 6% growth every year in each of the countries in order to create neccessary growth for development.

Africas agriculture must be developed. The future will require a competitive, business oriented but also socially adapted agricultural sector in order to create wealth, increase job opportunities and improve the living standard. To be successful, knowledge development as well as innovative thinking will be of great importance. Better coordination between famers, their organisations and the private sector, to which they belong, is needed but also with researchers, extension staff, related groups within the civil society as well as representatives from the public sector. With limited resources available the plans for agricultural development must be implemented gradually. This is, no doubt, a challenge that requires a strong and legitimate African leadership.

The well-known international consultant McKinsey & Company has during many years studied and participated in agicultural planning in various African countries. On the questions “what” is now needed, “who” need to make something and “how” this must to be done, they have recently summarized their views in the following four point in an article titled Successful Agricultural Transformation:

  • African leaders and their governments must whole-heartedly take on the issue of agricultural development in order to become the force of change which is now needed in order to create a modern African society. This can, however, only be done gradually but still with the final goal in sight,
  • To achieve this, strategies are needed where government officials work hand in hand with farmers, their organisations and the private sector, to which the farmers belong. The links between research, university education and extension services need to be strengthened,
  • This requires a clear role for the private sector (see above) and close cooperation with government officials and other representatives for various development efforts in the society and
  • The development of markets will be of utmost importance. Focus has so far primarily been on the supply side and on short-term self-sufficiency in food. However increased attention must be given to local, regional and export market development and not at least to the processing of agricultural produce, so far often neglected.

All together, these are gigantic but quite neccessary tasks for the African leaders if they really want to take on the challenge to create wealth for the their growing populations, of which already now more than 50% live in towns and cities.

Where were these issues seriously and constructively discussed during the AU/EU-meeting in Abidjan to create visions and give hope to the young African population? Europe has, even with it´s colonial heritage, great possibilities to support the African countries in a number of important agricultural areas. Europe of today is built on basic values like democracy, gender equality and human rights and now also with strong views on the need for global sustainablity.

Which are the alternatives? Shall we instead hand over this important possibility to closely cooperate in the agricultural field, which African countries need more than ever, to countries like China and other more or less totalitarian governments?

Agriculture must again become a priority area for the Swedish government and it´s development cooperation policy, as I have already pointed at in a previous article, The Swedish Government´s Development Policy Framework: The role of agriculture has almost vanished, in Omvärlden on 21 March last year. This requires a clear mandate from the Swedish government to Sida and not, as today, where this important field is more or less ”hidden” within the discussions on Agenda 2030 and the Paris agreement on climate change.

Inge Gerremo                                                                                                                Senior Adviser SLU Global, Dr.Vet.Med. hc, Honorary Fellow Royal Swedish Academy of Agriculture and Forestry, previously responsible for agricultural issuses within Sida and issues related to the multilateral environment conventions.

Source: SLU Global