Amid the disruption of the Covid-19 pandemic, Debisi Araba, presses the positive case for the future of African agriculture. “There is no reason why we can’t be self-sufficient and able to feed the world,” he says at the end of our hour-long conversation.
But throughout the conversation he also emphasises that the “transformation journey” will not take place overnight and will rely on cooperation between government and the private sector. A process that is “public-sector enabled and private-sector led” is his formula for success.
It was in May that Debisi took up his post as managing director of AGRF, the forum that brings together the major stakeholders in Africa’s agricultural landscape every year. But despite his young age, Araba has been at the forefront of African agriculture for many years. A senior adviser in 2015 to the former minister of agriculture of Nigeria, Akinwumi Adesina, the current president of the African Development Bank (AfDB), Araba also served as regional director for Africa at the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture, which aims to bring an evidence-based approach to decision making around agriculture.
The question on everybody’s mind is the impact Covid-19 has had on African agriculture. UN agencies have predicted a global food emergency due to border restrictions, slowing harvests and a loss of income for farmers. Globally, markets have so far proven resilient with stocks of most staple foods adequate. The worry is that unless sustainable action is taken, food shortages, disrupted supply chains, lower production and rising prices could emerge. Coupled with the locust invasion in East Africa and the continuing challenge of climate change, the African continent is far from immune to collateral damage from Covid-19.
Araba says the pandemic has been a stress test to global food systems, exposing the “soft underbelly that we’ve taken for granted”. Africa has shown some resilience but the full impact is yet to be felt in terms of future harvests and loss of income, he says. Political will to take remedial action will be necessary to avert the worst effects, he says, noting that there has been a heightened sense of awareness. Nevertheless, he would like to see more urgency: the continent needs to focus on ramping up production. This year’s AGRF Summit will address many of these themes (see below).
He hopes the pandemic will raise the importance of agriculture in government priorities and warns of the consequences of inaction.
“There are health implications if people don’t have access to healthy and nutritious foods: in other words malnutrition from poor harvests and lack of access to foods,” he says. “There are economic implications. And there are political implications. We have seen governments fall because of inadequate food policies, not just in Africa but around the world. We saw that in Thailand with the rice farmers because of a subsidy programme that didn’t work out.”
He fears that a lot of small and medium enterprises in agriculture will go out of business unless governments take the necessary action to support them, as they have for airlines and the hospitality trade. That needs political leadership, whether through a support fund, insurance mechanism systems or other fiscal incentives. Araba is confident the pandemic will reinforce the need for investment and reform and will bring about fundamental changes.
“We need to invest in infrastructure and technologies. There are means and measures to dampen the effect [like using] cold storage and cold chain supply and using modern technologies like solar powered cooling systems.”
There is room for greater collaboration at a continental level, especially in terms of data. Araba has been touting the need for the continent to collate data of grain reserves and government and private food stocks. These simple measures will help map stocks so that when a crisis hits an accurate food map of the continent exists to help manage surpluses and shortages in a more effective manner. This can then be integrated into an interconnected trading platform, to help trade within Africa and enable Africa to set the terms of its global trade.
This is all part of “being more deliberate”, he explains. “Right now, every planting season is done with hope. Every harvest is met with uncertainty in terms of how much you’re going to sell and at which price.”
Araba is an advocate of the private sector being at the heart of the transformation. Like the AfDB’s Adesina, Araba wants people to look at agriculture as a profitable business sector. “Agriculture is not something you do when all else has failed,” he says. “Agribusiness is complicated, and that’s why it needs serious, business-minded people who are dedicated and intelligent to make a success of it.”
But it also needs supportive government policy. His home market of Nigeria offers an interesting case study in the controversies of agricultural policy. While the government is keen to encourage domestic production, central bank activity to limit access to foreign exchange for importers of maize has proved controversial.
One outcome that policymakers should expect is a rise in the price of maize, and “as a policymaker you need to be comfortable with the consequences of this action,” he explains.
He’d like to see a programme focused on increasing productivity, investing in seed systems, mechanisation and security so that cultivation areas are not threatened by encroaching livestock. Investment in irrigation and roads and market systems will smoothen volatility.
“Transformation is about moving from one way of doing things to another, better way. The yield gap is there and Nigeria needs to increase productivity when it comes to producing maize.”
He lauds entrepreneurial Nigerian businesses like Babban Gona Farms and Tomato Jos that have introduced innovations to the business model, outperformed national average yields and built strong businesses.
“It requires a cohesive and sustained assault on the challenges holding productivity back,” says Araba. “So I’d like to see everything [central bank policy alongside a programme focused on production and productivity] happening at the same time. And we should not simply focus on maize for domestic consumption.
“This is where I think we miss the core message: Nigeria should be a global agriculture and food powerhouse and a net exporter, supplying maize to West Africa. We need people with big ambitions both in the public and private sector. We’re starting to see these people.”
The theme of the 2020 AGRF Summit, “Feed the Cities, Grow the Continent”, was chosen last November, long before the pandemic struck. But it is prescient, says Araba, with urban centres particularly vulnerable to shocks.
“We need to have an honest conversation on agriculture and food, what we grow, how we process it, what we consume and in what quantities,” he says. “We need to understand what future we want and how Africa can play a greater role in global food production and do so in a more sustainable and cohesive manner.”
This year’s gathering will take place online from 8-11 September and will be centred around four broad issues:
High-level dignitaries and private-sector experts will debate the questions and registered delegates will be able to pose questions to speakers via integrated chat functions, as well as via social media.
The summit will provide a platform for Africa to sort out its priorities ahead of the UN Food Systems Conference taking place in 2021.
“AGRF is the confluence of the ideas, energy and drive of the agriculture and food sector in Africa,” says Araba. “My message to the general public is that people are working day and night to ensure our food systems thrive. To government, we need to work even harder but we can lean on each other for support and knowledge. And to the private sector, it is through their ingenuity and persistence that economies thrive, but they need to make their voices heard by the public sector. Private enterprise does not thrive in silence.”
Despite the difficulties of the pandemic, climate change, and East African locust swarms, 2020 has also seen impressive cooperation among multilateral agencies and governments, including the World Bank, the FAO, and the AfDB. AGRA is leading the way by providing technical support to national governments to align resources in response to Covid-19.
“Africa will not wilt in the face of this pandemic,” says Araba.
For more information about the AGRF Summit go to www.agrf.org