A grain revolution for Africa

In just a few decades, Africa has become a net food importer. But it has to feed more and more people in the future. Estimates suggest the continent may end up spending more on importing food than on any other development needs

By Richard Mahapatra
Published: Wednesday 13 September 2017

Farm yields in Africa are at about 23 per cent of global levels and agricultural productivity is growing at about half the rate of population growth

Africa never ceases to surprise the world with its existential contradictions. We know about its “resource curse”, the generic term that bundles all these contradictions. But, as the previ ous article points out, the contradictions in the agriculture sector are stark.

The continent has 65 per cent of the world’s arable lands that are yet to be cultivated. If cultivated, it could feed over 9 billion people, more than the world’s population. Yet, it has one-third of the world’s underfed population. By 2030, its agri-business potential would be US $1 trillion, but this will be only because of being the world’s only continent to be a net food importer.

While Africa has other pressing developmental challenges such as malnourishment, growing health burden and the threat of climate change, the continent spends the most on importing food, which otherwise could have been spent in such programmes. Moreover, the continent will have the world’s largest population in a few years; it already records the fastest population growth. For a continent where agriculture still employs the most, it is no more an existential contradiction, but a real threat to a decent existence. For more than three decades the continent has been a net importer of agricultural products. But what is stifling is the change in the nature of food imports. The continent has been importing basic foodstuffs such as dairy products, edible oils and cereals, implying that food imports have become increasingly important to ensure food security. In the continent’s most densely populated region—the Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA)—40 to 60 per cent of smallholder farmers are absolute buyers of staple foods. They spend more on food than they earn from selling agricultural produce.

Growing imbalance

But it was not always like this. In 1980, despite Frankenstein famines that killed thousands and near non-existent resource in many countries to spend on human goods, Africa reported a near balanced agricultural trade. The continent imported and exported the same worth of agricultural produce—the food import bill was US $14 billion. But that was also the last time the continent witnessed a healthy trade scenario. At present, Africa spends US $35 billion a year on imports of agricultural produce, while exports are negligible (see ‘Africa survives on imports’). The share of intra-African trade is less than 5 per cent. By 2050, the African population is expected to be about 2 billion. To feed this population, and going by the current import trend, the food import bill would be US $110 billion in 2025.

Data sources: African Development Bank's  Socio Economic Database, 1960-2016 and African Agricultural Trade Status Report 2017

Various regions of the continent are emerging as the world’s biggest food importers. West Africa, for instance, imports 20 per cent of the world’s total rice. Or take Nigeria. While domestic production of rice has stagnated at 28 kg per capita since 1990, consumption has nearly tripled in this period. It now spends more than US $2 billion annually on rice imports. While export growth has not been as high as expected, the value of agricultural imports has increased five times since 1998.

“But Africa cannot eat potential,” says Akinwumi Adesina, the president of the African Development Bank and Nigeria’s former agriculture and rural development minister. “What Africa does with agriculture is going to determine the future of food in the world,” he says.

Contradictions within

Africa remains a predominantly agrarian economy. The average contribution of agriculture to the national economy of an African country has been about 30 per cent since the 1980s. The poorest countries of the continent are importing the least, even though they are net food importers. This has ramifications for the continent’s poor.

For example, a comparatively richer country like Nigeria with oil wealth reported the highest per capita food import of US $185 annually between 2000 and 2005 on an average. On the other hand, a poor country in SSA had a per capita annual import of US $17 annually. But the difference between these two scenarios is that in Nigeria’s case, the government had the resource to pay for the import through revenue from exporting oil, but in countries in SSA, governments don’t have the capacity to pay for the import bill. So parts of the continent with the poorest population have been witnessing uncertain food availability.

The pessimists believe that the continent, particularly countries in SSA, will find it more difficult to attain food self-sufficiency. So, the import will continue in greater volumes, further draining the state exchequers. It will be a vicious circle for the rural population who will suffer the most due to the continent’s inability to produce more food. And, the result: the much-feared slide on the path to dependency, unemployment, rural exodus and desertification, leading to famine. As we know conflicts just need these type of triggers.

Reports from the 10 countries carried in the previous article indicate a revival of policy interest in agriculture. But what is worrying is that the crisis needs immediate action. This is because food imports and the general decline of the domestic agriculture are having disastrous impacts.

Africa is predominantly a rural continent. Unlike other continents, Africa will have 60 per cent more rural population in 2050 than now. The rural population of Africa is already more than 500 million, 80 per cent of them living in poverty. Rural population depends on agriculture for survival. Even though Africa is witnessing fast economic growth, there seems to be no proportionate impact on poverty reduction. Countries like Ethiopia and Zambia, for instance, outpace India and China in economic growth. It is clear now that without growth in the agriculture sector, pure economic growth doesn’t have the capacity to turnaround the situation for the people. Agricultural growth is way behind services and industrial sector in term of growth. During 2000-09, per capita agricultural income reported less than 1 per cent of annual growth. Besides, more people mean more quantity of food for consumption. But without a productive local agriculture, the prohibitive import bill would surely lead to a serious scarcity of food.

There is another aspect to this crisis. Africa’s urban population is also increasing and the urban Africans are vociferous consumers due to better economic conditions. This demand will add to the already increasing food demand from rural areas. In fact, a significant percentage of imported food is consumed by the urban population. But as UN data point out, there were three African farmers for every urban dweller in 1990, but in 2020, one full-time African farmer will be expected to feed two urban dwellers. Projections by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the Food and Agriculture Organization (OECD-FAO) on Africa’s consumption and production of high value commodities over the period 2011 to 2023 indicate that an increasing share of the region’s growing demand for high value food products associated with rising consumer incomes will be met by imports.

Agriculture has another crucial role to play in this continent. The continent needs to revive agriculture to provide livelihood to the booming young population. According to the FAO, agriculture still accounts for 58 per cent of Africa’s eco-nomically active population. In countries such as Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mozambique, Niger and Rwanda, agriculture provides employment to over 80 per cent of the population. More than 60 per cent of the continent’s population is under the age of 25. Some 220 million young people will join the workforce between now and 2035 in SSA. According to projections by UN’s Economic Commission for Africa, wage jobs can absorb up to 25 per cent of them. This leaves farming and related self-employment to absorb the employment needs for at least 70 per cent of young Africans entering the labour force (more than half of whom live in rural areas) till at least 2030, says the estimate.

Extent of degradation

Africa’s agriculture is a victim of both environmental degradation and a lack of political will (see ‘Low on farm growth’) . Like rural India, the continent too is witnessing land fragmentation due to population rise and rising dependence on farming due to lack of other economic opportunities. Though there are visible signs that small farmers are responding to this situation by increasing cropping intensity, but this is also limited to a few high-yielding varieties, leaving no time to take up activities like crop rotation to increase soil fertility.

Data source: African Development Bank's Socio Economic
Database, 1960-2016 and paper on Land Resource Stresses
and Desertification in Africa published by the US' Natural
Resources Conservation Service Soils

It is estimated that 65 per cent of the arable land in SSA is already degraded. This costs farmers about US $68 million annually due to loss in income. According to the Montpellier Panel, a group of African and European experts from the fields of agriculture, trade, ecology and global development which was chaired by Gordon Conway of Imperial College, London, the economic loss due to soil degradation impacts 180 million people, mostly smallholder farmers who are now depending on imported food.

Africa is already battling the impacts of climate change. According to a report by the Montpellier Panel, mean temperatures in Africa will rise faster than the global average, and agricultural losses will amount to 2 to 7 per cent of GDP by 2100. “By 2050, hunger and child malnutrition could increase by as much as 20 per cent as a result of climate change, reversing the gains achieved through the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) process whilst jeopardising the success of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs),” says the panel’s report.

Low investment in agriculture is a key bottle-neck. Development and distribution of improved seeds, fertilisers, insecticides, improved extension service delivery and market infrastructure require capital investments. Walter Sandow Alhassan, director, Biotechnology and Stewardship for Sustainable Agriculture in Africa (BSSA), says a Green Revolution like that in Asia offers a dramatic increase in food production through the introduction of high-yielding seeds, insecticides, fertilisers, farmer credit and irrigation facilities. Farm yields are still low, at about 23 per cent of global levels. Agricultural productivity in Africa is growing at about half the rate of population growth. This is largely due to the continued low modern input supply—seeds, fertilisers, insecticides, continued reliance on rain-fed agriculture—and less exposure to new management practices.

States in action

In 2003, a definitive step was taken to start a Green Revolution in Africa with the adaptation of the Maputo Declaration. The declaration calls for a minimum investment of 10 per cent of the annual budget into agriculture and rural development, and a target of 6 per cent agricultural growth. The Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) is Africa’s framework to transform the agricultural sector under the declaration. A number of initiatives put into place by development partners have helped considerably. These include the constitution of the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) in 2003, Alliance of Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) in 2006 and the Drought Tolerant Maize for Africa (DTMA) programme in 2012. These initiatives did revive interest in agriculture.

But after 14 years, only a handful of countries—Ghana, Ethiopia and Burkina Faso—have made the 6 per cent agricultural growth target made under the Maputo Declaration. “In most African countries, progress has not been remarkable as evidenced by the huge portions of national budgets spent on food imports,” adds Alhassan.

Together, NEPAD and CAADP represent a departure from externally-driven development strategies and programmes characterised by shifting priorities and the absence of the necessary consistency and continuity to produce solid results. CAADP is not a “one-size-fits-all” plan, but a strategic framework that provides a set of shared principles, targets and operational milestones to guide programme planning and implementation by country governments, regional economic communities (RECs), and other stakeholder groups.

Barring a few exceptions, African countries and RECs have embraced the agenda. Major innovations of CAADP include the practice of evidence-based policy and programme planning and implementation linked to mutual accountability through peer review, benchmarking and mutual learning. The 2014, the Malabo Declaration significantly expanded CAADP’s agenda in terms of thematic coverage and mutual accountability requirements. In the declaration, African Union (AU) Heads of State incorporated issues dealing with reducing child undernutrition, post-harvest losses and vulnerabilities of livelihoods, and reaffirmed their commitment to mutual accountability by calling for a continental agricultural biennial review to assess progress on commitments. The first biennial review is scheduled for the AU Summit in January 2018. With the CAADP implementation agenda now in its second decade, work is underway to incorporate commitments of the Malabo Declaration into CAADP planning, implementation and review, dialogue and the mutual accountability processes.

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