Agriculture – the missing link, the ironies and the 80/20 rule...

The attitude of the educated African towards agriculture makes a curious study. At best it is lukewarm. Agriculture is seen through the lens of failure. At school, poor performers are warned that they should go home to dig or look after cattle, goats and chicken. When some big time corporate mogul (by our standards) is about to retire, they say that they will go back to farming.
Sam Kebongo
Sam Kebongo

The attitude of the educated African towards agriculture makes a curious study. At best it is lukewarm. Agriculture is seen through the lens of failure. At school, poor performers are warned that they should go home to dig or look after cattle, goats and chicken. When some big time corporate mogul (by our standards) is about to retire, they say that they will go back to farming. This warped mindset is telling. It is indicative as to why the continent has not made much headway in agriculture.

The African irony is having enough land to feed the world yet not being able to feed its people.

Indeed, our agriculture story is that of ironies. First, agriculture supports such a huge population (roughly 65 per cent of sub-Saharan Africa’s population rely on it) yet it is subsistent, productivity is woefully low. No fertilisers, no high-yield seeds, no irrigation, and no medication for animals. Sub-Saharan Africa adds less than 10 kilogrammes of fertiliser per hectare of land; in comparison, Asia employs 144 kilogrammes, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

Second, African cereals (synonymous to staples) yields are only one-third of the South Asian. This does not augur well for food security.  According to the World Bank, in the late 1960s, most sub-Saharan countries were net food exporters; as of 2002, Sub-Saharan Africa imported 19 million tonnes of food a year. We have regressed as we progressed.

Third, we leave farming at the mercy of the environment. This is unfortunate because our challenging environmental conditions make agricultural production difficult, particularly for small-scale farmers. Soil quality is poor in many areas, droughts are frequent, and infrastructure for transporting goods to market is limited. Unlike Asia, where a significant fraction of land is irrigated, 96 per cent of arable land in sub-Saharan Africa depends on rainfall.

But blaming the weather just won’t do. How do we explain the fact that the equatorial African countries are not breadbaskets despite year-round rainfall?

Egypt and South Africa are much drier and have comparatively fewer people involved in agriculture. 

South African agriculture provides work for rather few casual labourers (by African standards) and contributes around 2.6 per cent of GDP for the nation. Due to the aridity of the land, only 13.5 per cent can be used for crop production, and only 3 per cent is considered high potential land. Yet the country is one of the world’s largest producers of: chicory roots (4th), grapefruit (4th), (we have all drank South African wine!), cereals (5th), green maize and maize (7th), castor oil seed(9th), pears (9th), sisal (10th), and fiber crops (10th).

The irony here is that the fewer the people involved in agriculture, the more productive it gets.

Let’s look at Rwanda. The first reason for the lack of agricultural productivity in Africa is instability. We have crossed that path. Rwanda has enjoyed strong economic growth in recent years.  With 80 per cent of its labour force employed in agriculture, coupled with the country’s growth record and macroeconomic stability, Rwanda has a solid foundation for agriculture investment.

The government, through the Rwanda Agriculture Board (RAB), has set out to modernise and mechanise agriculture. This builds sustainable market linkages, improves policy coordination, and land policies and increases incomes.

With a burgeoning population, subsistence farming is increasingly a threat to food security and an enemy of growth and development. Thus RAB’s land use consolidation efforts involve land adjudication and survey to ensure that individual parcels are marked out and owners recognised and respected. The arable land is then consolidated into larger tracts that are easy to mechanise and modernise. Farmers organise themselves into cooperatives with each farmer shares being the proportion of land they own in relation to the whole. Typically, the farmers will then live in imidugudu, (cells akin to the Israeli Kibbutzim) which is economical and makes the provision of amenities and security cheaper and easier. These are towns and cities in the making.

The missing links in all these laudable efforts are the involvement of the educated elite in agriculture and more investment. A couple of years back, African countries resolved to invest at least 10 per cent of GDP in Agriculture. Only a few countries have since implemented this resolution. Our problem is that when we say investment we presume it has to be foreign, that is missing the point. The more local it is the better.

Perhaps the Pareto’s optimal rule (80/20 rule) applies to agriculture too. May be if we put 20 per cent of the population to deal with matters agriculture (as opposed to the current 80 per cent), then they will be 80 per cent productive.

Either way we have to increase our focus in this sector. Private sector investment in agriculture is crucial.

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