African farmers say they can feed the world, and we might soon need them to

Africa’s immense agricultural potential has long been a keen point of discussion among agronomists and global decision-makers.
Africa’s immense agricultural potential has long been a keen point of discussion among agronomists and global decision-makers.
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Food exhibitions in the Mediterranean region tend to attract a familiar cast of characters. There are the Gulf Arab agribusinesses, looking to expand their reach, and the large-scale European farming and logistics companies, who are turning out in ever-greater numbers as they seek out new markets for goods that had previously gone to Russia.

But tucked among the usual raft of suspects at this year’s Food Africa expo in Cairo in April were a few participants with far less consistent attendance records.

Behind a gaudy Saudi dairy display, a Sudanese distributor of gum arabic and watermelon seeds energetically talked up his wares to crowds of passing traders. Across the cavernous convention center, representatives of Ugandan and Nigerian firms doled out business cards like hotcakes.

Their numbers remain limited so far—only five from sub-Saharan African countries, by my count (the expo wouldn’t confirm)—but to rival food companies unaccustomed to mixing with their counterparts to the south, even this low turnout was enough to make a splash.

“We’ve talked forever about what places like Ethiopia and Kenya could do. They have all this land; all this water,” said Giovanni Santo, an Italian apple exporter, as he eagerly chatted up possible clients. “So it’s good to finally see them here.”

With 60-65% of the world’s uncultivated arable land and 10% of renewable freshwater resources, Africa’s immense agricultural potential has long been a keen point of discussion among agronomists and global decision-makers. After a 160% increase in African agricultural output over the past 30 years, many elements of the continent’s food production process look to be on an upward trajectory.

As the global population continues to soar—it’s expected to approach 10 billion by 2050—there’s plenty more to be done. We’ll need to boost agricultural production by at least 70%, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Given that Africa’s share of the global population is forecast to rise from 15% to 25%, there’s a mounting appreciation that farmers on the second-largest continent will have to play a key role if this boom is to be managed successfully.

“We can and would be happy to feed the world,” said Raajeev Bopiah, general manager of the East Usambara Tea company, which produces over 4 million kilograms of tea a year on its 5,000 acres of land in Tanzania. “We just need the knowledge and the funding.”

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Wheat fields in Egypt.


There are a number of hurdles to boosting the fortunes of Africa’s farmers.

One of the biggest obstacles is the messy system of tariffs and inflexible border policies that govern relations between many of the continent’s 55 states. Only 13 countries offer visa-free or visa-on-arrival entry to all Africans, according to this year’s Africa Visa Openness Report. Businesses in landlocked nations in particular complain that shifting their produce across frontiers to ports is such a fraught exercise that they often incur huge losses in the process.

“Transportation in Africa is so hard. It’s expensive and sometimes risky,” said Ahmad Ibrahim of African Alligator, a mostly Ugandan firm that started off hauling carpets and elevators before moving into the sesame and peanut trade. Ibrahim says border waits “can be long, and goods perish.”

Regional economic bodies like the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have enjoyed some success in harmonizing customs forms and improving at least a few cross-border transport links, but many say they don’t go far enough.

Within their own states too, governments have exhibited a tendency to inadvertently stymie trade. Tanzania’s inconsistent tax regime, for example, has bounced farmers from one tax bracket to another. Those charged with balancing the books say it’s hard to plan far in advance for fear of finding oneself on the hook for unexpectedly high bills.

“There’s no guarantee that it will remain constant for a long time, and that hurts. You can’t plan long-term when new taxes are imposed without taking into consideration what is affordable and what isn’t,” Bopiah says.

Image for article titled African farmers say they can feed the world, and we might soon need them to

Infrastructure, funding, corruption and bureaucracy pose huge obstacles to boosting Africa’s farmers.

Shoddy infrastructure also haunts large swathes of the continent. The transport network in northern Tanzania is so poor that Bopiah’s tea-producing company is severely limited in the weight of goods it can haul on the 70km journey to the port at Tanga on the Indian Ocean. “You can’t transport more than four tons in a truck on mud roads—as opposed to the 20 tons I could do on proper roads. It’s costing me five times more!”Bopiah said.

In the most egregious recent example of the pitfalls of overwhelmed harbor facilities, at least 10 ships carrying 450,000 tons of emergency wheat for drought-stricken parts of Ethiopia earlier this year were kept waiting out at sea for weeks because the port at Djibouti couldn’t cope with the volume of incoming cargo.

A shortage of silos and an erratic power supply also forces many food producers to turn to expensive diesel-fueled generators in order to fire their water pumps and greenhouses. Some 30% of all food produced across the world is lost to spoilage or waste, according to FAO. A lack of adequate storage means “the continent loses food worth $4 billion annually as post-harvest loss,” says Richard Munang, a senior official at the UN’s Environment Program. “Inefficiencies along Africa’s agro-value chains are the basis of food problems.”

By upgrading and expanding facilities, while also boosting low electricity output, Africa could fast become food self-sufficient.

Beyond infrastructure issues, corruption continues to undermine the hard work of small landholders and large agribusinesses alike. For companies that must haul their wares long distances or navigate bribe-happy transport hubs, it all cuts deep into their bottom line.

Farmers also face limited funding opportunities. Most countries on the continent lack agricultural banks and commercial banks tend to see agriculture as an overly risky bet. “They think the gestation period is just too long,”Bopiah said. “For example, if you want to plant a certain crop, it could take five years for it to start paying itself back.” Deprived of access to proper loans, many farmers are unable to buy some of the tools or chemicals that might enable them to boost their yields. In a continent where wheat yields can be as low as 1-1.5 tons per hectare (in comparison to 3 or 4 tons elsewhere), these limitations are intensely problematic.

What’s next

As far as leading African agronomists are concerned, Africa is playing a desperate game of catch-up. “We don’t have the time [that] developing countries had in the 60s. Today in Africa, not only do you have to produce better, but in a globalized world, you have to sell better too,” said Ousmane Badiane, Africa Director at the Washington D.C-based International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).

With a quarter of people in Sub-Saharan Africa currently going hungry, the stakes are desperately high, and states will have to deploy the full arsenal of modern tools if they’re to feed not only themselves but booming populations elsewhere.

There are signs that decision-makers are making inroads in reducing some of the obstacles that hobble agriculture. Microfinancing is becoming more available, according to farmers interviewed in southern Egypt and Sudan, while the African Development Bank is issuing lines of credit as part of its drive to create 25 million jobs in agriculture over the next ten years.

Governments are also learning to retreat from some areas of agriculture, leaving businesses freer to boost yields. Earlier this year, authorities in Kenya announced that they are considering scrapping a number of the taxes that are stifling its all-important black tea industry.

“Africa is very capable of making progress,” Badiane said. “But we just need to be a lot bolder to really succeed.”