How the political economy of agriculture holds Africa back

Friday September 14 2018

A horticulture farm in Arusha, Tanzania.

A horticulture farm in Arusha, Tanzania. In every country in Africa, agriculture is the backbone of the economy, a fact that politicians cite in almost every speech they make on economic matters. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

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Earlier last week, I attended perhaps the largest gathering of people who work on and think about agriculture in Africa.

Organised by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (Agra) in collaboration with several partners, the meeting was in Rwanda’s clean and secure capital, Kigali. As one would expect at this sort of gathering, a wide range of topics was discussed. It sometimes wasn’t easy to decide which sessions to attend and which ones to miss.

A highlight of the event was the launch of the 2018 Africa Agriculture Status Report.

The report makes for interesting reading. It shows the progress, albeit limited, that the continent is making, thanks in part to major continental initiatives such as the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme and other ambitious plans by the African Union and numerous development partners providing much-needed financial and technical assistance.

However, some of the chapters do not make for happy reading. They raise some very uncomfortable questions for the people in charge, the political leaders especially.

A whopping 65pc

It is over half a century since Africans started running their own affairs. Some may argue that this claim is mainly theoretical, but at least all African countries are independent.

A whopping 65 per cent of Africans, of whom the majority are poor, still depend on agriculture as their main, if not sole source of livelihood. In every country, agriculture is the backbone of the economy, a fact that politicians cite in almost every speech they make on economic matters.

Even then, agriculture in Africa is backward. The backwardness explains why the continent has been a net food importer since the 1980s.

While most of Asia transformed its agriculture long ago into an engine of economic growth, in Africa only a few countries have taken or begun to take coherent and consistent action towards achieving that goal. And now think of this: All this sloth and stagnation is despite Africa’s possession of abundant natural endowments.

Africa has more than half of the global total of uncultivated arable land. Its tropical and sub-tropical climates permit long and multiple farming seasons. Its labour force is mostly young and energetic, with large numbers unemployed or underemployed.

The backwardness of agriculture in Africa is visible in such indicators as productivity of both land and labour. Both remain low in comparison with other parts of the world. Yields are rising, but not quickly enough. In many countries, value-addition is more the stuff of politicians’ speechifying making than reality.

Perhaps most sobering is the fact that the value of agricultural imports into Africa is higher than that of exports from it. What can explain all this? Many factors. History and politics are arguably most significant.

To understand the role of these two factors, one ought first of all to agree that the entire development or social transformation endeavour is patently political.

Leaders who seek deliberately to transform their countries are invariably driven by political imperatives.

A hungry majority is an angry majority

By way of a simple illustrative example, in countries that are led by minority groups whose ability to hold on to power depends on securing acceptance by potentially hostile majorities, governments tend to focus on the imperative of pursuing prosperity, not least because the wealthier and more contented their potential adversaries are, the less they will be minded to rise up against the status quo.

Where agriculture is the source of livelihood for most people, there is no better way to ensure peace and stability in the long run than to ensure that it prospers. There are various examples of this.

In Africa, however, leaders have often sought to take shortcuts to maintaining stability, via bribery of potential opponents, or simple repression.

Elsewhere, existential threats to sitting governments have not been potentially hostile ethnic majorities, but rival political groups fronting ideologies that contain the promise of prosperity for the hungry and angry poor.

There are examples in East Asia where investment in smallholder agriculture became a priority for governments that were facing the threat of overthrow by communist movements for which poor peasants were a potentially large pool from which to recruit insurgents.

It thus became imperative to tackle poverty. Agricultural development provided the quickest route to putting money on a more or less permanent basis in the pockets of the hungry and angry masses. And as peasants became more prosperous, their prosperity provided the grounds for a systematic pursuit of industrialisation in order to supply them with the industrial goods that, thanks to rising incomes, they could now afford.

In Africa, governments have for the most part been lucky to rule over quiescent peasants who make no demands because they are usually contented with the little they have, and have political and social elites that are easy to buy off, manipulate, or intimidate into silence.

This is not to argue that agriculture in Africa will not develop until conditions similar to those that have underlain agricultural transformation elsewhere emerge. Rather, the argument here is that African leaders who do not face political imperatives forcing them to pay close attention to agriculture cannot simply be talked or financed into it by experts or donors.

Frederick Golooba-Mutebi is a Kampala- and Kigali-based researcher and writer on politics and public affairs. E-mail: [email protected]