Africa Rising

By Marshall L. Matz, as published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

According to Forbes Magazine, Mr. Strive Masiyiwa is the Bill Gates of Africa. The Econet Wireless Group headed by Masiyiwa and based in South Africa now operates in 17 countries, employs 6,000 and generates $3 billion a year. Yet Masiyiwa believes it is agriculture development that will drive the African economy.

It is a belief shared by the African Union, the organization that represents Africa’s 54 nations. In the United States we are all fed by the 1 percent who farm; in Africa some 65 percent of the population farms. While Americans spend less than 10 percent of our disposable income on food, Africans must devote the vast majority of their income to food. It is common for our farmers to get yields of 200 bushels of corn per acre; in Africa 20 bushels an acre is common.

Most African farmers are smallholder farmers, tilling less than two hectares (around 5 acres).  “Smallholder farmers are at the heart of African agriculture and they must have access to the resources needed,” said Kofi Annan, the former secretary general of the United Nations and the father of the African Green Revolution.

The recent White House-African Summit and African Green Revolution Forum held in Ethiopia each emphasized the importance of the African smallholder farmer as the key to economic development. The goal, according to Annan, is to double production in the next five years. This would not only reduce hunger but it would catapult the African economy.

The good news is that Africa is well on its way to achieving this goal. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation have created the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, AGRA, to coordinate a public-private effort.

The seed program has now released over 450 new varieties carefully selected for their compatibility with the African environment. The seeds include locally adapted varieties of maize, rice, cassava, sweet potatoes, soybeans, bananas and other African staples.

Other AGRA programs focus on soil health, markets, capacity building, financing and public policy in those countries that make up Africa’s two “breadbaskets.”

“Africa has the resources necessary to feed its population and to help feed the world as well,” said Akin Adesina, the minister of agriculture in Nigeria. It is a rich continent with poor people. Agriculture already accounts for over one-third of Africa’s combined gross national products. Further, agriculture has strong multiplier effects on employment and is critical to achieving broad-based economic growth, reducing poverty and addressing youth unemployment.

While continuing to expand seed production, markets and the other building blocks of modern agriculture, there are two major challenges.

The first challenge is to get the modern seeds and other inputs needed to boost production to the smallholder farmers who are the backbone of African agriculture. There are now some 20,000 local agro-dealers in rural Africa. They are privately owned businesses: mom-and-pop agriculture stores reaching smallholder farmers in the local villages. Africa needs 200,000.

The agro-dealer network has provided farmers with over 400,000 metric tons of seed and 1 million metric tons of fertilizers. Farmers in Kenya, Nigeria, Mozambique, Uganda and Ghana are reporting that improved hybrid seed varieties along with other inputs have doubled harvests. Further, agro-dealers can provide extension services to educate smallholder farmers on best practices and tractors to help mechanization. It is clearly time to replace hoes with tractors.

The other major challenge in Africa is government policy. While many African countries are responding to the African Union’s call to allocate at least 10 percent of their national budgets to agriculture, more attention must be paid to consistent and reliable government regulatory policies. Trade among African nations must be eased. Governments can also help with guaranteed financing for smallholder farmers and other creative initiatives. In Kenya, for example, Governor Mutua in Mackakos County has purchased tractors and is lending them to farmers for one day at a time.

In the United States, we take agriculture and food production for granted. We are the most efficient country in the history of the world when it comes to food production. Most of our political leaders, including President Obama and those in Congress, come from our big cities. But if we want to help Africa and its emerging private sector economy, we must give more time and thought to agriculture. The African Growth and Opportunity Act, AGOA, should be amended to provide technical assistance for agriculture. Feed the Future should be made permanent by legislation with a focus on economic development.

Africa is on the cusp of great change with six of the 10 fastest-growing economies in the world. It is agriculture that is going to drive the next stage of Africa’s economic development, as it did in the United States after President Lincoln created the Department of Agriculture and the land grant universities.

Marshall Matz was counsel to the Senate Committee on Agriculture. He serves on the board of the World Food Program-USA and the Congressional Hunger Center.

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