How Africa can be the food frontier for the world

10 mins read

Africa’s population estimated at 1.34 billion, is projected to rise to 1.71 billion in 2030, by which time the world’s population is expected to have shot up from today’s 7.8 billion to 8.6 billion. According to a McKinsey & Company report, 60% of the world’s uncultivated, arable land lies in Africa

Africa has an estimated 33 million smallholder farms. The economy is inherently dependent on agriculture yet since the 1980’s has been a net importer of food with an annual food import bill of US$35 billion, this figure is projected to shoot up to US$110 billion by 2025. This over-reliance on imports is driven by increasing urban demand and compounded by weak infrastructure and inefficient farming methods. Critically, it places much of Africa at significant risk of exposure to global economic shocks such as covid-19.

A global recession would, of course, pose a major risk for food security. It is much too early to tell whether such a scenario will play out. Nonetheless since the onset of covid-19 many governments worldwide have started to prioritize agriculture and food security as the basis for economic transformation.

Breadbaskets are regions that produce a large and stable surplus of one or more major food crops that not only meet local demand, but substantially contribute to food supply in other regions. By this definition, there are only a few major breadbaskets in the world. The only rain-fed corn and soybean breadbaskets are the U.S. corn belt, Brazilian Cerrados and Argentinean Pampas.

Can the continent be turned into an African food basket? Can it go from being an importer to a supplier to the world? The answer in my opinion is YES.

Let’s look at the numbers – it’s no secret that the continent is importing what it could be producing: 2 million metric tons of soybean, 1 million metric tons of poultry, 22 million metric tons of maize, and 10 million metric tons of dairy product each year. What’s worst is African countries export raw goods abroad to be processed into consumer products imported back into Africa for purchase, a good example is cocoa. Effectively Africa is exporting jobs outside the continent and contributing to Africa’s poverty challenges.

Kenya has huge potential to be a global food-processing hub. Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana could process their cocoa into chocolate themselves – there is some processing, but more can be done. Nigeria needs to mechanize its agriculture and transform its livestock sector. Mozambique needs to develop its various agricultural corridors.

There will be 2 billion people in Africa by 2050, and agriculture will be central to feeding this population. Governments must look at agricultural transformation to building social cohesion, provide a platform for global exports, create beneficial continental trade, and help create millions of jobs while pulling subsistence farmers out of poverty. The largest agricultural frontier in the world is in Africa where nearly 400 million hectares of Savannah zones exist. If just a small fraction of that cultivatable land can be transformed it could help decrease dependence on food imports, feed the continent and contribute to feeding the world. 

At the 2018 World Food Prize event in Des Moines Iowa, Jennifer Blanke, the African Development Bank Vice Present for Agriculture and Human and Social Development stated that transforming a small part of Africa’s mixed woodland grasslands, in a smart and sustainable way, can produce enough to supply all the continent’s maize, soybean, and livestock requirements. The African Savannah is like a sleeping giant that has the potential to become the cradle of the continent’s green revolution.

Africa must learn the strategies of successful agribusiness nations such as Brazil, Thailand among others and adopt these lessons into African agriculture. Increasing farmers capabilities would increase Africa’s output and help solve poverty. A blend of strategies for grains, roots, tuber and livestock must be put in place with emphasis on how to overcome production hurdles, produce profitably in a smart and sustainable way by adopting innovative soil and crop management programs and technologies.

According to a McKinsey report “Winning in Africa’s Agricultural Market” Sub-Sahara will require eight times more fertilizer, six times more improved seed, at least US$8 billion of investment in basic storage (not including cold-chain investment for horticulture or animal products) and as much as US$65 billion in irrigation to fulfil its agriculture promise.

Governments must invest heavily in agriculture to alleviate income by assisting farmers to move away from subsistence farming to commercial farming. Truly transforming African agriculture at the farmer, market and cluster levels depends on financing, government enablement, innovations, strategic partnerships and sustainability.

African governments should develop and implement new agriculture policies, research, training and innovation, transform the industry into a business driven by technology, big data, internet of things among others so farmers can be assured of productivity, increased yield, and access to market.

Brazil transformed its tropical Cerrados into a US$54 billion food industry within two decades, many countries in Africa can do the same – if they prioritize investment in the sector.

Some African countries have reformed land rights and water management, build up rural infrastructure and improve access to inputs such as seeds, finance and insurance to boost agriculture. Several economies have moved way from low-value grain to producing higher-value crops such as horticultural crops (e.g. Kenya and Ethiopia) and bio-fuels, boosted their GDP and provided jobs.

One of the biggest challenges facing farmers has been poor access to quality farm inputs – just 20% of Africa’s farmers can access improved varieties of seeds. Other threats to Africa’s agricultural productivity include poor warehousing, inadequate processing tools and weak market structures, poor infrastructure and transportation services, all of which adds to significant wastage.

African nations can facilitate a platform for best practice sharing. Governments should invest in developing skills in the upstream phase of production and cross-country coordination. Public-private partnership initiatives – investment in FoodTech and AgriTech for efficient use of water, pesticides and fertilizers by reducing operating cost. 4IR (The Fourth Industrial Revolution) technologies provide an opportunity for Africa to harness the full potential of its agriculture sector. In Ghana companies such as Farmerline and Agrocenta offer farmers mobile and web technology for agriculture advice, weather information, financial tips. A startup in Nigeria, Zenvus, measures and analyses soil data to help farmers apply the right fertilizer and optimally irrigate farms.

The AGRF (African Green Revolution Forum) is the world’s premier forum for advancing Africa’s agricultural agenda. It draws thousands of delegates to rethink Africa’s food system to deliver a more resilient, better nourished, and more prosperous future for the continent. However, the role of the state in leading the charge, catalyst, and aggregator of economic development is critical to success. What’s required is sustained state support, strategic action and effective policies and institutional support for agriculture, equally important is leadership.

African economies need to learn from the world and adapt based on their special socio-economic conditions and context. The continent’s agriculture has made great strides, progress however is uneven.  There must be actions and commitment at the government level, with the combined efforts of other stakeholders — private sector, international organizations and development institutions.

The transformation of Africa’s agricultural sector is under way but there must be more focus on scaling up investment in Africa’s agriculture and agro-processing to transform the sector, increase its resilience to crises like covid-19 and climate change, and spur the continent’s burgeoning industrialization and technological revolution. However, stakeholders must commit to action and accelerate change.

Africa must change, Africa must want a new beginning, stand up, be counted, take its place in the world stage.