Africa needs new mindset for agriculture development

A Presidential Adviser in Uganda, Rose Zimulinda’s recent comment in a Ugandan newspaper pointed out how the 23rd Ordinary AU Heads of State Summit held in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, was not excited about discussing agriculture.
 Isaac Sebakijje.
Isaac Sebakijje.

A Presidential Adviser in Uganda, Rose Zimulinda’s recent comment in a Ugandan newspaper pointed out how the 23rd Ordinary AU Heads of State Summit held in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, was not excited about discussing agriculture.

I feel that despite other pressing political and security matters during the summit, it was inexcusable to downgrade agriculture which was also a topic on the agenda. Obviously, Africa’s mindset has not grasped agriculture as being a vital economic enterprise.

Most educated people in Sub Sahara Africa do not think of farming as a professional business pursuit. It is a mindset with disastrous consequences. The vast majority of Africans consider themselves farmers, but very few have basic agricultural knowledge to produce commercial food.

Sub Saharan Africa must stop viewing agriculture as a rudimentary activity. The current harsh reality of poverty can be traced back to lack of agricultural development. There is a misconception that the engines of growth lie outside of agriculture.

Non-agriculture enterprises are supposedly the “more important” sectors. Multinational companies conserve more effort in absorbing the workforce in non-agriculture sectors to stimulate growth.

It is simply faulty logic to conclude that promoting agriculture confines the poor in a poverty trap especially in East Africa where 75% of the workforce is engaged in agricultural activities.

Recent growth in the Asian economic tigers such as Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and parts of China were typically preceded by, and engineered by, agricultural growth.

For example, the tremendous success of agriculture in Brazil came from government leadership, strong rural policy, new research institutions and dedication to training farmers and technicians.

Brazil defined agriculture as a knowledge-based activity and designed policies and institutions to deliver the latest scientific and technical knowledge to the farming community. The knowledge was simplified, practical and understood by the common farmer related to their livelihood.

Many developed countries were well aware of the importance of agriculture and fostered it at high public cost. Countries like the USA and those in the European Union continue to support agricultural production, both directly, through market protection and support such as research, subsidies or risk sharing and indirectly in the form of income grants for farmers or the introduction of high quality standards for imported food.

However, agriculture in Sub Saharan Africa is taxed rather than subsidized. International policies implemented since the 1980’s, further restricted public investments in agriculture. The results have been catastrophic.

Sub Saharan Africa suffers gross national food deficits. The World Bank estimates that Africa could suffer a food shortage of 250 million tons by 2020 if nothing is done.

The demand for food is met by commercial imports or international food aid. The smallholder farmers in Sub Saharan Africa are poorer and less productive than farmers elsewhere in the world.

On the supply side, there is a need for technological change, including water development, rural financing facilities, training and human resource development and health care.

On the demand side, there is a need to improve roads and railways, transport facilities and storage.  In East Africa, we must support the resurrection of cooperatives and cooperative banking to empower farmers. As part of the mindset change, we should not consider any academic graduate who turns to farming as ‘unemployed’

Political leadership is needed to align agricultural research and training with institutions and enterprises that are committed to improve food supply and the living standards of rural farmers. This will involve providing incentives that promote the creation and growth of small and medium-sized enterprises while investing in infrastructure to move goods.

International development agencies, private foundations and others should step up to support leaders with political courage to commercialize agriculture. They must also support organized indigenous farmer groups and private companies.  

The summit in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea in July 2014 was a rehearsal for the  Obama’s invitation for 47 African leaders to Washington DC August 5th - 6th 2014; so to speak.  It will be shocking if African leaders downplayed the importance of Agriculture in the USA, a country where agriculture is king.  

The writer is a tourism professional and co-founder of Impactafrica Trade and investments. Email: impactafricati@gmail.com

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