Agriculture and the future of Africa

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By Chidi Oguamanam

Africa is continent of 55 countries and thousands of nationalities with incredible human and cultural diversity. Anthropologists have long associated the prevalence of human and cultural diversity with biological, ecological, ecosystem and agricultural biodiversity. Africa is an outstanding evidence of that concordance. In addition to its wealth of incredible diversity, Africa is the youngest and fastest growing continent. In 2050, a quarter of the world’s people would be resident in Africa (2.5 billion). Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, would rank the world’s third. Over 70 per cent of Africans would be under 30 years of age! How can the continent harness this incredible potential which could readily flip into unprecedented tragedy if not well-managed? That is the big question for the future of Africa. That future is at the intersection of strength and a ticking time bomb.

In a way, Africa’s future lies on the continent’s ability to capitalise on its strengths, to exploit its late-comer advantage in the development dynamic. A few of those strengths and their intersections include the continent’s population and youth power; its traditional knowledge and the latter’s intersection with technologies, all of which have ramifications for agriculture as a crucial sector for the continent’s political and economic stability.

As a starting point, Africa must be able to feed itself. In doing so, it must creatively engage its youth and leverage the continent’s value-added in the global market place by interfacing information communication technologies with agro production and marketing. The need to fill the gap between youth power and the continent’s ability to feed itself needs no emphasis. Most political ruptures in history from the historical bred riots to fairly recent Arab Spring have been linked to the frustrations of a hungry population which is inevitably an angry population.

But development experts construct Africa, as they do of world’s indigenous peoples, as in a desperate need for “capacity building and capacity development” in virtually all areas including agriculture. They are wont to recommend orthodox solutions. Hardly any regard is given to what the rest could learn from Africa. For example, they prescribe hi-tech/industrial agriculture as the solution to Africa’s food insecurity. Now, the entire country, including Nigeria is in a race to the bottom over the introduction of genetically modified organism as the prime gift of agro-biotechnology to be uncritically embraced. But “experts” are silent on the cost of that approach or the overall industrial agriculture option on the continent.

In a counterintuitive way, these uncritical advocates of capacity building and capacity development are themselves in need of inward capacity development to understand Africa’s realities. Hi-tech agricultural has troubling legacies ill-suited for replication in Africa. Consider this: Since 1990s, we have lost 75 per cent of plant genetic resource diversity for food and agriculture. Today, 24 billion tonnes of healthy soil and 15 million trees are lost yearly; one third of the world’s agricultural land is degraded. The future of industrial agriculture beyond 60 years is bleak! Only 3-5 mega transnational agro-chemical corporations have monopoly over key economic crops; we rely on three – rice, maize and wheat – (out of an estimated 30,000) of those for 75 per cent of our calorie intake. For these mega agro transnational corporations, African is another market frontier for their investments.

Africa’s case is different: At 874 million hectares, Africa has 60 per cent world’s fertile land. Of 600 million Africans engaged in farming, 80 per cent are women. They are smallholder farmers. They are, by default, organic farmers relying mainly on TK and agrobiodiversity. The costs of wholesale adoption of industrial agriculture include massive social disruption and displacement of rural populations, deforestation, and replacement of agrobiodiversity with monoculture. Those are already evident from developments across the continent from Cote d’Ivoire to Cameroon; Liberia to Ethiopia, for example. Other costs include degradation of soil quality, another race to the bottom in the form of foreign direct investment desperation in agriculture which has resulted in unconscionable massive agricultural land grab across the continent. Gradually in agriculture, we are at the risk of repeating what has happened in the pharmaceutical sector. There, R&D priorities are set by the Big Pharma, with huge investments in medicines for the rich and diseases of the affluent as opposed to the needs of the poor and vulnerable. With Africa’s agriculture in the hands of agro-TNCs, R&D agenda in agriculture will be far removed from Africa’s priorities and needs in agro-biodiversity and the sustainability of traditional agricultural knowledge and practices. That is not a viable pathway for the continent.

Africa’s factor endowment in TK-driven agriculture sustains ‘the culture in agriculture’ as Africa’s way of life. The communal and cultural components of agriculture in Africa are the reason African agriculture resists being reduced to mere production line of industrial monoculture. Africa can lead the search for how best to integrate its agricultural traditions into a sustainable and winning business model. That would include selective and dynamic adaptation of technologies such as those relating to climate change adaptation and mitigation, not to mention irrigation (only four per cent of Africa’s agriculture benefits from irrigation technology) and the use of new ICTs for global market optimisation of Africa’s niche and value-added in crop diversity and organic production. Not only would ICT bridge the gap between farmers and sophisticated brokers in the global value chain, it would open untapped legitimate branding through trademarking options, geographical indications and other custom market options. Although it may feel like the genie is out of the bottle, African may yet resist being screwed by the global supply/value chain. Through internal self-sustaining investments in its areas of factor endowment, it may still avoid developmental havocs of advanced economies by re-thinking the prospects of agriculture for the continent’s future in a constructive manner in relation to the self-serving and conventional prescriptions of western development experts.

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