PATH TO PROSPERITY

Farming crucial but has been neglected

Africa yet to move past colonial model that promoted the large scale production of cash crops.

In Summary
  • Sub-Saharan Africa produces less food per capita today than it did in the 1970s.
  • The number of chronically undernourished people has increased significantly.
Farming in Kenya
Farming in Kenya
Image: STAR ILLUSTRATED

While sub-Saharan Africa’s potential is unbounded, challenges persist. Moreover, many longstanding challenges hold back the continent’s progress and will stymie recovery from the social and economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

An estimated 319 million people don’t have access to reliable clean drinking water. Some 640 million people don’t have access to electricity. About 413 million live below the poverty line. At about 23 percent of Africans are undernourished, the highest prevalence of all regions in the world.

According to Grow Africa, 60 percent of the world’s unexploited arable land is in Africa and it is worth billions in investment. Moreover, with a median age of 19.7 Africa is the youngest continent in the world. An estimated 30 million youth will enter the labour market each year by 2030. But the growth of formal sector jobs remains depressed, with only 3 million formal sector jobs currently being created.

 

Sub-Saharan Africa’s external debt is now recognised as a vital dimension of the post Covid-19 economic recovery. Africa’s debt level is a deep cause for concern and urgent attention. Average public debt has risen to 59 percent of GDP in 2018. Furthermore, according to the World Bank debt has by increased by about 150 percent between 2008 and 2018 to $583 billion.

Sub-Saharan Africa produces less food per capita today than it did in the 1970s and the number of chronically undernourished people has increased significantly. Some estimates show that less than a third of Africa’s arable land is under cultivation. Hence, it is not surprising that Africa’s annual food import bill is about $35 billion and is projected to increase to $110 billion by 2025.

Modernisation and intensification of the hundreds of millions of smallholder production systems remain critical to Africa’s economic and social transformation.

Africa is yet to move past the colonial model that promoted and incentivised large-scale production of cash crops like sisal, tea, coffee, sugarcane, pyrethrum and tobacco. Food production was never a priority for the colonist.

Africans grew food, often in small farms for subsistence. Moreover, research, extension and marketing support were directed to cash crops, not food crops. African agriculture was and is still largely viewed as low-productivity supplier of food and raw materials.

Sub-Saharan Africa continues to suffer from chronic structural underinvestment in food production and in the rural sector. Neglect of smallholder farmers who produce the bulk of food crops is the primary cause of declining food production, undernourishment and rural poverty.

Agricultural production per hectare of land in sub-Saharan Africa is estimated at about one-third of the values achieved in Asia. Africa has the lowest fertiliser consumption rate in the world – representing two percent of global consumption despite being home to about 15.6 percent of the global population. Moreover, when African farmers use fertilisers, they pay up to six times more than the average world price.

The performance of Africa’s agriculture sector is at best depressing. However, modernisation and intensification of the hundreds of millions of smallholder production systems remain critical to Africa’s economic and social transformation.

 

Without fixing agriculture, chronic hunger, undernutrition and poverty will derail Africa’s collective march to equitable and durable prosperity.