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Africa Can Feed itself and the World. Why is it Not?

  • “Agriculture, across Africa, must now be taken as a business – to generate wealth and rapidly diversify our economies – not for managing poverty,” AfDB President, Akinwumi Adesina said.
  • Agriculture is the answer to Africa’s development and has the potential to grow the region faster, feed itself, eliminate hunger and food insecurity as well as feed the rest of the world.

    This potential according to New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) lies in its land, water, oceans and the labor force on the continent.

    However, the opposite is happening. Agriculture in Africa is not growing as fast as it is widely expected despite the fact that Africa has world’s’ largest arable land.

    Making his presentation at the Africa 2016: Business for Egypt, Africa, and World Conference, in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, on February 21, the African Development Bank Group President, Akinwumi Adesina supported the notion that Africa has more than 60% of all arable land left in the world to feed 9 billion people by 2050.

    He was speaking of the five strategic goals that the bank is working on with an aim to accelerate development in Africa. One of the strategies being “Feed Africa”, which is part of AfDB’s High 5s for Africa.

    “There is absolutely no reason why Africa is a net food-importing region, spending over $35 billion importing food. Africa must feed itself – and Africa must become a global powerhouse in food and agriculture,” said adding that the Bank will accelerate support for massive agricultural transformation across Africa – while building resilience to climate change – to fully unlock the potential of agriculture, to lower food prices, save scarce foreign exchange, increase foreign exchange earnings, strengthen macroeconomic and fiscal stability, revive rural areas – and in particular, create jobs for hundreds of millions of Africans. We must change our approach to agriculture.

    “Agriculture, across Africa, must now be taken as a business – to generate wealth and rapidly diversify our economies – not for managing poverty,” he added.

    In commemorating the Africa Year of agriculture and Food security in 2014, Chiji Ojukwu Director of the AfDB’s Agriculture and Agro-Industry Department, highlighted the importance of Agriculture in Africa, and the Bank’s support for the sector in the region.

    Commenting on Africa’s farm yields, Mr Ojukwu noted with regret that the agriculture sector in Africa is the least productive in the world, with an average productivity rate of 36%. He added that the region’s current food import is in excess of US $25 billion per year.

    In order to develop the sector, in its new Agriculture Policy and Strategy [2015-2019], the Bank is supporting the development of agriculture value chains in Africa’s priority crops – maize, rice, cassava, and wheat.

    While these are good plans for Africa to grow its agriculture sector which in turn will develop the region, there is a need to take a closer look at why the continent is yet to meet the ‘Africa can feed the world’ dream.

    Half of Africa’s arable land is ‘damaged’

    In a rather drastic twist, as much as there is more than 60 percent of arable land in Africa, most of this land is infertile contributing to poor crop production in the region.

    The Montpellier Panel Report, December 2014 highlights that the soils’ varying properties, diverse qualities, and characteristics directly influence the quality and amount of food that farmers grow.

    Due to soil neglect, land degradation has slowly affected the Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) through erosion of topsoil which has major nutrients needed by crops. The “No ordinary Matter: Conserving, Restoring and Enhancing Africa’s soils” report estimates that 180 million people in SSA are affected while the economic loss due to land degradation is estimated at $68 billion per year.


    Smallholder farmers are majorly affected by these effects on soil because they tend to invest in short-term gain such as tenuous land security and limited access to markets and financial resources, foregoing long-term plans to restore soil productivity through various expensive soil treatment measures available.

    Health soils are fundamental in producing sustainable healthy foods for the local market as well as for export. By addressing the soil degradation concern in African countries and among the small-holder farmers, Africa can address the food insecurity issue.

    Over-reliance on rain-fed agriculture

    Most of Africa’s agriculture depend on rainfall which is tricky especially with the increased climatic changes.

    According to World Bank, rain-fed agriculture in SSA accounts for about 96% of the cropland leaving only a negligible percentage that utilizes irrigation to produce.

    In Kenya for example, less than 20% of the land is suitable for agriculture, with the rest of the land falling in arid and semi-arid regions which are not fit for agriculture and cannot rely on rain to produce.

    “The high reliance on rain-fed agriculture vulnerable to weather variability leads to fluctuations in production and incomes, especially for rural areas. There is low utilization of irrigation potential with only less than 7% of the cropped land under irrigation,”influential analysts argue.

    The Africa Infrastructure Country Diagnostic (AICD), argues that 39 million hectares of agricultural land in Africa is physically suitable for irrigation, yet the percentage of irrigated arable land is 7% (barely 3.7% in Sub-Saharan Africa).

    Governments and other agricultural agents should support Africa to adopt and practice irrigation farming in order to curb famine in African families which then affect the larger section of the population in the continent as a whole.

    Yields can significantly be boosted through improved water management like increasing water availability and the water uptake capacity of crops. Further, World Bank advises thatimproved agricultural water management “are in many circumstances catalytic—reducing the barriers to adoption of otherwise costly soil and crop management practices by increasing the returns to such investments.”

    Poor infrastructure

    To further develop agriculture in SSA, transport network should be put in place to ease movement of products to the market and input from the market to the farms.

    Governments and donors should support Africa’s rural areas to access better roads and energy which are crucial for agriculture.

    A research dubbed “The Role of Agriculture in African Development by Oxford University indicates that transport in Africa is much costlier than in developed countries. Comparing the case study of transporting bananas (Matoke) from Mbarara to Lira both in Uganda was estimated to cost $5.43 compared to $0.573 of transporting corn in the US.

    “Only 34% of rural Africans are living within two kilometers of an all-season road, compared to East Asia and the Pacific countries where 90% of the rural populations have such access,” AfDB argues.

    Due to the poor road network, there is increased spoilage of foods especially perishable goods and also grains. With such high rates of spoilage, farmers tend to lose much more in transporting food to the markets hence, constrained growth in the sector.

    Developing the agriculture sector is key to Africa’s future. Agriculture creates jobs, incomes, and food for the people. As such, strategic measures should be taken to support this sector through investing in irrigation.

    Moreover, infrastructure also plays a major role in ensuring that farm inputs reach smallholder farmers in time and at minimal costs so as to reduce on the overall cost of farming.

    Last but not least, there is a need for soil management to ensure that crops have adequate nutrients for better yields. Capacity building and support from government and other agents would see this challenge addressed in the Sub-Saharan Africa leading to better yields in quality and quantity.


Written by PH

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