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

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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

Posted  Saturday, June 7   2014 at  11:17

In Summary

  • Agriculture has the potential to reduce poverty twice as fast as any other sector.
  • African governments must recommit to their Maputo pledge of investing 10 per cent of their budgets in agriculture and rural development. 
  • We need alliances in which the private sector, farmers’ organisations and civil society all work together for agricultural development.

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.

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