Africa: Rising to the Challenge of Feeding Itself

By JONES THE JOURNO

Earlier this month I was in Ivory Coast for the African Green Revolution Forum (AGRF) in Abidjan. What an experience – to be surrounded by 1,500 passionate people who can talk about farming until the cows come home.

We talked of revolution. A complete transformation of African agriculture, tapping into the production potential of 41 million smallholders farming some of the most fertile soils in the world.

Watch out for Africa, world, for she is on the rise.

I wrote a business piece for the Farmer’s Guardian about it, because British farmers and food businesses have been getting increasingly excited about the export potential to Africa. Plenty will highlight its growing population, set to double by 2050. “They’ll need feeding,” is the perceived wisdom.

That view was challenged and even debunked in Abidjan. I watched as Presidents, Government ministers, aid donors, NGOs and the private sector pledged their commitment (and their money) to kick starting an agricultural revolution from the Cape to Cairo, Kenya to Cameroon.

No one denies Africa faces major challenges – climate change, political instability and poor leadership in some countries and a lack of access to finance, inputs and markets for some of the world’s poorest farmers.

But don’t underestimate her assets and opportunities. This continent can grow anything from commodity crops to high value fruits and vegetables. One delegate said of Côte d’Ivoire: “Sprinkle seeds anywhere in this country and they’ll grow.”

Labour is abundant with 300 million young Africans entering the job market in the next 15 years. Governments are more coordinated than ever before with some countries spending 10% of their GDP on agricultural development. Rwanda, which invested heavily in food and farming, is now one of the most thriving economies in Africa, with sustained annual growth of 8% over the last decade. Other countries are looking to follow suit.

So should Europe bank on Africa to take our food exports? Will it be a customer or a competitor in the future?

Dr Agnes Kalibata, President of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) and former Minister of Agriculture, Rwanda: “Africa wants to seize the opportunity to reduce imports and grow prosperity for its population through agriculture. It’s very important for Europe to understand that Africa needs to start using its potential to create jobs in Africa, so that Africans stop going to Europe to look for jobs. Exporting to Africa means there is no capacity to create jobs on the African continent.”

Dr Holger Kray, Head of Africa Agriculture Policy Unit, World Bank: “The opportunities on the African continent are large. We see a transition in consumption behaviour in the middle class that will impact demand for refined food products from Europe but will also create supply on the African continent. European markets beware.”

William Asiko, Executive Director, Grow Africa: “There are some African countries that will become competitors, particularly the larger countries. Ethiopia is putting in place the right policies and they are attracting a lot of private sector investment, both domestic and international. But for the next 10 years at least we will see Africa continuing to be a customer of processed foods. In 30 years, maybe 50, we’ll see imports reduce.”

Dr Kanayo Nwanze, former President, International Fund for Agricultural Development: “The time of dumping is going to be over. What part of the world are there opportunities to bring about a doubling of yield by simply irrigating or adding 1kg of fertiliser? Current agricultural systems in Africa are performing at about 25-40% which means we have a 60% gap to increase the productivity of our existing systems. Nowhere else in the world is there such potential.”

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Dr Kanayo Nwanze, former President, International Fund for Agricultural Development and 2016 winner of the Africa Food Prize

Peter Awin, Entrepreneur and Founder of ‘Cow Tribe’, Ghana: “Do we have enough land? Yes. Do we have hard-working young people to engage in the sector? Yes. So what do we need? Investment to push all these resources together to produce more food to feed Africa.”

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Me and Peter Awin – he never tasted chocolate until he was 22. I grew up with chocolate but I’ve still never seen a cocoa plant!

Back to earth with a bump…

A few days after landing back in the UK, I read a piece in The Guardian newspaper about cocoa farming causing mass deforestation in Ivory Coast. The story was spread across three pages but only the last paragraph mentioned the farmer’s livelihood and the low prices paid for cocoa. I couldn’t stand by and let African farmers be portrayed only as a problem – when I know they are part of the solution. So I wrote a letter.

To my delight, they published it.