Those of us who went to school a few decades ago were brought up on knowledge that agriculture was the backbone of African economies. That understanding sort of marked Africa apart from the industrialized world whose mainstay was manufacturing. It was even implied that Africa was doomed to remain that way.
Yes, there were suggestions of inferiority – no doubt because of the backward implements of African agriculture, the taxing physical labour and the deliberately cultivated contrasting comfort of non-agricultural work.
Understandably not many people saw their future in agriculture.
The last few years have changed that perception. Heavy manufacturing is in decline. Its place has been taken by information technology companies that thrive on lots of brains and not much brawn, on some hitherto unfashionable light minerals, and on limitless possibilities of application.
Whereas manufacturing might become the dinosaurs of industry, information technology is so adaptable, and even mutative, that it will surely survive industrial evolution.
Agriculture, too, will survive and become highly profitable, even without government subsidies as happens in the West. It will not be so much because of its evolutionary adaptability as the fact that we have not found a substitute for organic food. Genetically Modified Food has not quite caught on yet and will probably take a while to do that.
Agricultural profitability is ensured by the phenomenal growth in the world’s population. Yesterday we hit the seven billion mark. With all those mouths to feed, the smart money is in agriculture.
There are several other reasons why agriculture remains crucial.
One, as we have noted, has to do with the survival of the species on this earth. Despite many years of trying and trillions of dollars in the bargain, we have not yet found life supporting conditions anywhere else in our solar system.
Two, there is the angle of profit to the whole business of survival: there is money to be made from the very necessity for our continued existence.
Rwandans who are smart enough to have recognised this business opportunity are indeed minting money.
Of course they are cashing in on favourable agricultural policies. In Rwanda we have made food self-sufficiency a priority and we have largely succeeded. This has been mainly due to innovative use of available land such as crop intensification, better use of marshlands for maximum yields and irrigation. Then there are improved seeds, harvest management and better marketing systems.
We are not there yet. But still, there are many good things going for agriculture.
For one, farmers have learnt that the benefits of agriculture go beyond simply food self-sufficiency. They realise that there is money to be made from a growing population and an increasing urbanisation in Africa, both of which ensure that there will always be demand. Africa has the fastest growing population and urbanisation rates.
Secondly, the current high food prices are good for farmers. The World Bank reports that in the last two years food prices went up 505 and that while this hurt the middle class, it benefited the farmers. The bank also projects that the high prices will hold for the next twenty years or more.
And thirdly, modern technology is changing the image and fortunes of farmers.
The African farmer of the future will not be the rough, barefoot, illiterate, hoe-wielding peasant. He is more likely to be a smart, technology savvy person, clutching an I-pad (or whatever the latest fad in information technology will be), checking the weather forecasts and market trends. He will use the most up to date technology to follow the latest in agricultural research and technology, and the advanced farming methods and inputs. All of which will multiply output several-fold.
Sounds futuristic and overly optimistic? Not exactly. It is already happening. It may have taken long coming to Africa, but it sure will. That is another reason for singing the praises of modern information technology. It is pervasive and easy to use.
In any case when we start imagining what the future will look like, that us an indication that it is already with us. And the optimism is what keeps us going. It feeds our search for answers to various challenges and helps move us forward.
And so, as there are mouths to be fed – and there are no indications of a slowdown in population growth – there is still money to be made from tilling the land.