The most worrying scenario in Africa today, as the hike in food prices ravage the world’s poor, is not in the price of the food, especially the imported kind per say, but is the underlying fact that Africa’s population which is largely agrarian is still a net food importer, even after decades of attempts to kick start some sort of green revolution.
This situation is a unique one in the world, and as much as we look to other examples, it demands a unique solution for sub-Saharan Africa.
How do we move from a net food importer to a net food exporter like many Asian countries which a few decades ago were at the same development level like us?
The British industrial revolution was based on the movement of labor from manual-based industry to machinery-based option, in the process, mechanizing and industrializing agriculture and thereby reducing the people involved in food production while at the same time increasing the productivity rapidly. These developments meant that people who were moving away from manual labor were being trained into vital skills and directed into the ballooning textile, chemical industries etc, on the back of the invention of steam and coal power to replace wind, horse and man power. Also, due to increased food productivity, the population growth accelerated to feed the hunger for labour that new industries were breeding. It is therefore no surprise that in Britain, and in many areas of the developed world, two percent of the population produces food on a large scale for remaining ninety eight percent, yet in Africa the reverse is closer to the truth.
Africa may not look into this model entirely because at the time of the industrial revolution in Europe, there was an excess of resources and capital from the new world, powered by slave trade and the huge British Empire that was created by British colonialism. But we get some key pointers. First, we must find a way of expanding our average farm sizes in order to utilize the economies of scale, and we have to think more in the direction of mechanization, the science of improved varieties, with higher yields and shorter life spans, use of pesticides and fertilizers, reduce dependence on rain irrigation and move away from many of the traditional agrarian practices that have been practiced for ages, in order to have a realistic increase in food production. All this would not be possible if the farmers cannot afford to move into this technology direction. Therefore the issue of farmer financing and credit comes in.
The above description is what actually took place in India after independence, in wheat and rice growing, in what is called the green revolution in India. Success was recorded in some parts of India as a direct consequence however the sustainability of this yield increase has been questioned in some corners, but still, increased productivity in wheat and rice not only in India but also in the wider Asia, translating to Africa’s dependence on this region for food, is a reality rearing its ugly head, in the current food crisis. Success in India was recorded where it was possible to control, apart from availing the resources, the available water sources. The highlight is that improved varieties need adequate amount of nutrients (fertilizers) and water for their potential in yield increase to be exploited. As much as India is certainly not at the European level of economic or agricultural development, it is at a growth stage, closer to sub-Saharan Africa.
So how do we move from Asia’s to Africa’s success? The uniqueness of Africa’s engraved farming habits and conditions makes it a clear case of initially taking into consideration the differences between the state of agriculture in Asia before the green revolution and the state of sub-Saharan Africa now.
In many African countries, farmers are grappling with land fragmentation that reduces the farming to a very subsistence level which does not make much economic sense. The poverty levels in Africa are excruciating. Majority of Africans live on less a dollar a day, and poverty is actually increasing. In effect, unaided, the majority of African farmers can not afford the cost of new varieties, In this case the cost of exploiting their potential maximally. Our crop diversity is such that they are many piecemeal interventions taking place at ago that at the end may not be beneficial. Irrigation, in many places sounds like rocket science. The traditional government-based agricultural extension system has failed for a long time, and is ill equipped to bring about the forms of innovative technology transfer on a mass scale as would be necessary. HIV/AIDS is straining the manpower available. All this only goes to prove the complexity of the matter but does not overrule the possibility of this obstacle being overcome.
The situation only calls for a holistic concerted approach by governments, private sector, international organizations, philanthropists, home-bred and international scientists to joint coordinated efforts towards increasing productivity, slowly and carefully, through a bottom-up participatory approach that will involve the primary stakeholders in the problem assessment and solution formulation, implementation. The Koffi Annan-led Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) is one such initiative at kick starting Africa’s version of the green revolution from an African approach. AGRA’s plan is quite multi-disciplinary, holistic and quite impressively organized, with the financial muscle (Rockefeller Foundation which was behind the Latin America and Asian versions of the green revolution and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) that should relive it from begging money from donors. It will be a long, arduous journey that will not yield results tomorrow, but it is crucial that all the stakeholders stick to the commitments in order for Africa to achieve agricultural development and food security.