Arguably, agriculture is one of the oldest economic sectors associated with the history of human beings and its evolvement. This goes back to the primitive era when human beings were fully dependent on what nature offered for its existence. This made agriculture a primary source of human wisdom and skills, as well as their culture and values related to their mutual co-existence with nature. Certainly, the level of knowledge by then was not anything beyond emotional intelligence and was based on trial and error.
This however, does not imply that the relationship was always comfortable and easy. It is a history of ups and downs, oftentimes with direct cause and effect. The impact of this relationship has varied across societies over time. Some of the previous failures are not exclusively attributed to the behavior of nature but also to the way in which society manages change and its capacity to live with it mutually.
Evidence of this situation is the co-occurrence of drought and/or flood in different places with varied impacts. While these disasters have compromised productivity in agriculture and caused enormous distress in Africa, even when they happen in their extreme forms in countries of the global North, their consequence is drastically low as the reaction and resilience capacity is already in place.
The issue at hand is how society manages its agriculture resource base and exploitation. In case of Africa, this could include investment in agriculture technologies, knowledge systems, marketing of agricultural inputs, outputs, and credit services. Importantly, ignorance about the ineffectiveness of partial investment as opposed to investing as a package is something that should immediately cease. For example making available improved seeds with no fertilizer or inputs without effective extension services and expecting a breakthrough is a daydream! The effort exerted will shamefully be a futile exercise.
Two more significant challenges that agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) faces include; imminent climate change and its consequences that mainly affect smallholder agriculture. In the past, one could easily claim that they practice agriculture or farming, if they have land, oxen or camel for power and labor. However, due to changes in weather conditions and population explosion, the possibility for continued expansion into uncultivable land is limited, which could otherwise compensate the yield loss due to drought. Presently, it is hard to farm without the required input of a water reservoir on the land. Similarly, consideration should be made to the continuously changing aspects of agriculture production and productivity; hence research systems should keep the pace of these dynamics.
Secondly and most importantly is the failure to change our mindset. Most of us in the field, especially those involved in setting policies, consider events of drought/floods as isolated or one-time calamities while they have become recurrent incidences. As a result a number of people and animals continue to be sacrificed and children will continue to suffer from malnutrition and its effects if we do not change our mindset.
Drought and flood are a new normal! We need to know how to address it, through adaptation of proven practices and innovations. Most of the science behind this is already known and can be tapped with a little more investment even through the national agriculture systems. The right policy and strategies, including the organizational set up, needs to be in place in order to have the capacity to manage change. This should ensure that benefits from the synergies and losses from the tradeoffs are considered and inefficiencies associated with a single input or a minimum package approach which would lead to irresponsiveness of the investment is avoided.
The SSA region accounts for about 950 million people, smallholder farmers with less than 2 ha constitute approximately 80% of all farms and employ about 175 million people directly (OECD-FAO Agriculture Outlook 2016-2025). Smallholder farmers are not homogenous and their categorization differs depending on the context in question. There are three typologies of farming, each requiring a different approach to build their resilience; subsistence agriculture, smallholder to medium farming and mechanized farming.
Subsistence agriculture (usually less than 1 ha of land) is characterized by low investment will not have a fate in the long term. Although, the number of farmers under this typology is large, the magnitude and complexities of the challenges they face is too many and too deep. A special approach and investment modality in the form of grants and aid is the way out, the kind of intervention recommended is a smart subsidy to take care of people’s livelihoods in the short term while investing on actions that ensure a more resilient tomorrow, a good example of this would be productive safety nets which create jobs while building public infrastructures.
Additionally, efforts should be put in place to working towards shift subsistence farming into intensive high value crop and livestock farming or to other sectors of the economy. This should go hand in hand with prioritizing technical vocational training and girls’ education to generate required skills and enable a shift to other sectors such as manufacturing and IT.
The small and medium holder farmers (with holding of 2 to 20 hectares of land) have great potential to transition to successful businesses, they have a better understanding and capacity of risk taking and investment. They are the most feasible for investments in technology, new ideas and justify the need for more credit and market blending finances. More investment is also justified to build necessary infrastructure and an agile, predictable and responsive regulatory system that facilitates penetration to regional and international markets
Mechanised farming (usually more than 50 hectares of land) is another typology that is capable of addressing both food security and export earnings in a more efficient way. . It depends on infrastructure investments such as, irrigation and energy for its production and most times is specialized on certain enterprises, uses mechanized power for cultivation and harvesting along with irrigation. Its capacity to practice modern technologies like tissue culture and fertigiation is relevant and makes its production more dependable and closer to manufacturing. The future holds plenty for such a typology, and there should be a move to it by design, particularly as we pursue agro-based industrialization.
Each stakeholder in Africa should understand the variations in these typologies of farming and decide where to invest in order to harness agriculture efficiency and productivity to address the two most daunting but complementary missions; the strategic role of agriculture to feed society and its economic role in employment, export, providing raw material for industries and reducing the impact on climate change through improving productivity per unit. The investment priority and incentive should go beyond the soil and food at the table to include the capacities to add value to primary products and subsequently increase revenues and incomes for producers.
This task though daunting is doable. Anything could be late but not agriculture. Continuing to do things the same way is a recipe for our failure. Our number is drastically increasing and the natural resource base dwindling each day due to climate change and population explosion. It is time to walk the talk or face the consequences. Certainly, we should opt for the first choice and do things differently; this will make us proud of our actions.
The writer is Director General of the SDGC/A.