A new sun is emerging on African agriculture

"Chronic long-term underinvestment and poor governance have resulted in an agricultural sector that has been unable to play a role in transforming Africa’s economies, either by ensuring food security, creating jobs or reducing poverty”, shows the report.

Referring to many studies, Africa currently imports $40 billion worth of food products. If no structural changes occur, this will rise to $110 billion by 2030. Yet, 60% of the world’s unused, arable lands are in Africa. By 2050 half of the world’s population growth will be occurring in Africa. It will be necessary not only to feed these people, but also to find work for them, and agriculture can help to solve both these challenges.

"Innovations can play a major role in that objective. ICT is increasingly being used in Africa’s agriculture sector, often through smart or precision farming. New technology could be an effective way to lure young people towards the sector. Innovative ways of facilitating youth participation in agriculture have the potential to drive widespread poverty reduction among youths and adults alike," the FAO and OECD said in their “Agricultural Outlook 2018-27”.

To help the continent move from subsistence agriculture to competitive and commercial agriculture, the report agriculture in Africa 2019 firstly highlights the need for renewed interest of governments through policies that promote infrastructure, access to land and finance and then the necessity for farmers to use more inputs such as fertilizers, improved seeds, irrigation systems, mechanization and digitalization.

Priority for investments to improve the production

During the colonial period, Africa was developed essentially as an agricultural-exporting economy. This goal was achieved with some success, as evidenced by the number of African countries being top global producers of tropical cash crops. Ivory Coast for example, has become the world’s largest producer of cocoa beans. Today, the country accounts for 40% of the world’s cocoa output.

After independence, many African countries focused on financing local manufacturing and considered agriculture to be a less productive food supplier. As a result, the post-colonial period was characterized by underinvestment in the agricultural and rural sectors. Consequently, Africa’s agriculture recorded poor performance throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

In 2003 the African Union (AU) launched the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Program (CAADP), a strategy centered on agriculture, with the goal of reducing poverty and ensuring food security. The program defined agriculture as a main engine of economic growth, and called for African governments to allocate 10% of their annual budget to the sector with the target of 6% annual growth. The Maputo commitments made in 2003 were renewed in 2014 in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea.

One of the CAADP’s most notable achievements has been that it “has significantly raised the political profile of agriculture”, according to the IFPRI. Some 40 countries had signed CAADP agreements by the end of 2014, with many nations designing their own investment plans for the agricultural sector.

However, the CAADP’s targets are still far from being met. Countries in sub-Saharan Africa only achieved a 2.6% average annual growth rate in the agricultural sector between 2003 and 2009.

Ethiopia, and to a slightly lesser extent Rwanda and Ghana, are positive examples for the continent when it comes to successful large-scale agricultural expansion.

According to the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), the recent policies placing farming at the heart of Africa’s economic development and promoting public investment in the sector are key to developing agriculture across the continent.

"It is important that governments prioritize investment in infrastructure to drive agricultural productivity, open up markets and increase private investment in the sector. Without infrastructure, the sector cannot grow. A lack of infrastructure is a particular issue in rural areas, which are the center of agricultural production. Rural areas need roads, especially feeder roads, in order to connect farmers to input and output markets", insists the boss of AGRA.

Key figures of the sector

The total value of agricultural production in sub-Saharan Africa increased by 130% between 1990 and 2013. Poultry continues to account for the biggest share of livestock production in sub-Saharan Africa; however, there are important and notable differences by regions. 

In West Africa for example, poultry represents the largest production with 27%, followed by sheep and goat (24%), beef (23%), dairy (11%) and pork (9%). In East Africa, dairy accounts for the biggest production (45%), followed by beef (18%), pork (16%), poultry (12%), and sheep and goat (6%). As for fisheries and aquaculture, sub-Saharan Africa’s fishery production accounts for 4% of the world’s total output.

Domains to investigate

The report notes that Africa's small agricultural industry faces a number of obstacles preventing it from playing a greater role in transforming the continent's economy, increasing production and raising incomes of the rural population, who make up the majority of the farmers' labor force.

According to FAO, tractors are only used on 5% of cultivated land in sub-Saharan Africa, compared to 60% in Asia. 75% of African farmers work in plantations using only hand tools. Fertilizer use is also very low by world standards. Fertilizer consumption in Africa currently accounts for only 3% of world consumption.

"Farmers would need more efficient seeds and fertilizers, as well as better access to financial instruments that allow them to acquire technologies, including those that reduce crop losses," says Agnes Kalibata of AGRA.

The trend is similar in irrigation. Currently, only 6% of the continent's arable land is irrigated compared to 14% in Latin America and 37% in Asia. This means that African agriculture is mainly rain-fed, which makes farmers particularly vulnerable to climate change and extreme weather events.

"To ensure food security, it is necessary to move from over-reliance on large-scale irrigation to a hybrid system that meets the needs of small-scale family farms. This is becoming increasingly possible with the provision of technologies such as solar water pumps to help smallholder farmers adapt to climate change", she added.

ICTs, effective way to attract young people

The ageing workforce of Africa’s agriculture sector will be one of its key challenges in the medium term. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the average age of African farmers is currently 60 years old. In many cases, farmers across the continent are struggling to convince their children to take over when they retire. However, unemployment is extremely prevalent among Africa’s youth.

The African Development Bank estimates that only around 3.1 million new jobs are created each year, which is equivalent to roughly one-quarter of the 12 millilon young people who are entering the workforce annually in Africa. In this context, agriculture is increasingly seen as key to providing jobs for Africa’s youth and convinces them to stay in their countries and the rural areas in particular.

"Africa’s youthful workforce could open up a wide range of economic opportunities with the right mix of policy and public investments," said Thomas Jaine, a professor at Michigan State University in 2016.

ICT is increasingly being used in Africa’s agriculture sector, often through smart or precision farming. New technology could be an effective way to lure young people towards the sector.

The report also asserted that a coherent and integrated approach that focused on addressing the existing obstacles related to “education, land access and tenure, access to financial services, access to markets, access to green jobs and involvement in policy dialogue has the potential to make the agriculture sector more attractive to young people, providing the additional push that may be needed for them to enter the sector.”

Tomorrow will be better

The report "OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook 2018-2027" predicts strong growth in agricultural production in sub-Saharan Africa over the next ten years with a 30% increase in agricultural production as the area under cultivation increases will be devoted to soy and corn.

Sugar cane is expanding and productivity is increasing through increased use of fertilizers, pesticides, improved seeds, irrigation and mechanization. The OECD and the FAO also expect meat production to increase by 25%, dairy production by 25% and fish production by 12%.

Palm oil production is expected to increase by 22% over the next decade due to productivity gains, while cotton, sugar cane and sugar production would increase by about 33%, 18% and 34 %.

Even with the expected strong growth, both organizations believe that the region's ability to produce food will continue to depend on global markets as domestic production capacity will remain insufficient to meet the growing consumption needs of the region.

In addition, they state that new challenges including the recent fall legionnaire’s epidemic affecting nearly 30 countries on the continent could jeopardize any increase in production forecast for corn, rice, sorghum, sugar cane, sugar and soy.

Despite the challenges, the prospects for the African agricultural sector are relatively positive. UN agencies expect cultivated areas to grow and farmers to use more inputs such as fertilizers, pesticides, improved seeds, mechanization, irrigation techniques, and to promote agribusiness.

In 2014, Carlos Lopez, former Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, said the development of the agro-food industry could be the next frontier for growth, bringing many rural areas out of poverty and creating many jobs.

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