Isn’t it time to recognise our small African farmers as entrepreneurs?

Saturday June 7 2014

Farmers tend to their rice crop in one of the reclaimed marshlands. Photo/Cyril Ndegeya

Farmers tend to their rice crop in a reclaimed marshlands. Photo/Cyril Ndegeya 

By STRIVE MASIYIWA

Why is it easier for farmers to get mobile phones in some of Africa’s remotest areas — from the Niger Delta to the Rift Valley — than to get high-quality seeds or technical advice?

As the founder of a global telecoms company based in Africa, I know that setting up a business can be hard work. But the right combination of incentives, investment and regulation can unleash a revolution.

Today, there are more than half a billion mobile connections in Africa. In many respects, we lead the world in mobile growth and innovation. So why haven’t we been able to do the same in agriculture? Why does Africa have a bumper annual food import bill of $35 billion, instead of a bumper harvest?

The Africa Progress Panel tackles this question in its latest annual report, Grain, Fish, Money – Financing Africa’s Green and Blue Revolutions. A large part of the answer, the report finds, lies in removing the odds stacked against our farmers.

Africa’s farmers are entrepreneurs, just like their counterparts in the telecoms industry. Yet they face even greater obstacles in getting their goods to market.

This is particularly true of our smallholder farmers, most of them women.

The typical farmer cultivates a plot the size of a football field or two. She farms without the benefit of high-quality seeds, fertiliser, irrigation or access to credit. She often tills her land with little or no machinery because her earnings are too low to make any investments.

Climate change means her crops are increasingly likely to fail. If she produces maize, her yields are set to reduce by a quarter.

Instead of helping our farmers overcome such obstacles, we have put more in their way, including excessive taxation, insufficient investment and coercive policies.

The challenges facing African agriculture are great, but they can be overcome.

A new set of opportunities has made the possibility of achieving an African Green Revolution greater than ever before.

Soaring demand for food, especially in Africa’s rapidly growing cities, has attracted high levels of private investment to agriculture. Private sector players that were previously absent have now joined initiatives like Grow Africa, where over 100 local, regional and international companies work in partnership with governments to achieve growth targets.

Over the past two years, these companies have committed more than $7.2 billion in farming investments.

We are already witnessing an agricultural renaissance in many parts of Africa, from Ghana to Rwanda. And agriculture has the potential to reduce poverty twice as fast as any other sector.

When countries invest in agriculture, they generate rural growth. This helps create jobs. It reduces poverty and hunger.

Rwanda, for example, has one of Africa’s fastest growing economies, growing at 8 per cent in 2012, not linked to any oil, gas, or mining, but boosted by significant increases in its agricultural productivity.

This agricultural growth reaches more people than oil, gas, and mining.

But today’s farming gains remain fragile. African governments must recommit to their Maputo pledge of investing 10 per cent of their budgets in agriculture and rural development. 

They must give farmers roads, energy supplies, storage facilities and supportive policies that rural areas need to thrive.

We need alliances in which the private sector, farmers’ organisations and civil society all work together for agricultural development. The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, one such mechanism, supplies high-quality seeds to millions of smallholder farmers.

Besides learning from the spread of mobile technology in Africa, we must tap it directly; mobile phones could revolutionise our agriculture.

Some African farmers already get valuable information, such as market prices, e-vouchers and credit through mobile services. Many of these innovative practices are more advanced and available to African smallholders than to their American or European counterparts.

This year has been designated the Year of African Agriculture. Let us make it a turning point for Africa’s agricultural entrepreneurs.

Our farmers could double their productivity within five years. Let’s give them a real chance — as we did to our mobile entrepreneurs — to catalyse a uniquely African Green Revolution that ushers in an era of shared prosperity.

Strive Masiyiwa is a member of the Africa Progress Panel, and founder and chairman of Econet Wireless. He is also the co-chair of GROW Africa and chairman of the board of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa.