This Is Africa: For inclusive rural development, farms come first

By Kanayo F. Nwanze

The following article by IFAD's President was originally published on 1 December in This Is Africa, an online service of The Financial Times.

Thinking about the future of agriculture in Africa fills me with both pride and trepidation. I am proud that Africa is home to some of the world's fastest growing economies, and that the region has seen foreign domestic investment triple over the last decade.

However, I am concerned that agriculture’s potential to drive inclusive development is being forgotten in this story of growth. Agriculture is our number one ally in the fight against poverty and hunger. Its development must be a top priority.

An infographic developed by IFAD and the Farming First partnership explores the potential of agriculture in Africa.
Sadly, levels of hunger and poverty in sub-Saharan Africa remain consistently higher than those in other regions of the developing world. In Latin America, the extreme poverty rate has fallen by 50 percent since 1999. In East Asia, it has dropped by 63 percent. However, overall sub-Saharan Africa’s poverty fate fell by just 17 percent in the same period.

More recently, of course, we have seen the tragic Ebola outbreak claim thousands of lives in west Africa. Those population have already suffered decades of civil conflict and failed development. The epidemic may well be compounded by a regional food crisis, as trade is disrupted and fields are abandoned by farmers due to fear of infection - or because there are no farmers left.

Today, two thirds of Africans earn their living from agriculture or fisheries, yet Africa imports $35bn worth of food every year. Why? This is food that can be and should be grown in Africa, by Africans. This is money that should be flowing in to support African businesses, not outwards.

There is no excuse for these contradictions, because Africa's agricultural potential is immense. The continent has the world’s largest share of uncultivated land, where rain fed crops could grow in abundance. More importantly, current farming systems are performing very poorly, well below their potential productivity levels. These could be doubled or quadrupled with help from yield-enhancing inputs and conducive policies – in short, through sustainable intensification. Africa also has the youngest population in the world, with approximately 10 million young adults entering the workforce each year.

The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), together with Farming First, wants to see Africa's agricultural promise fulfilled. This infographic demonstrates the scale of that potential.

The data we have gathered speaks volumes about why Africa lags behind other regions. For example, only around 5 percent of cultivated land in Africa is irrigated, compared with 41 percent in Asia. At the same time, farmers in Africa apply only 10 to 13kg of fertilizer per hectare of cultivated land. This compares to more than 100kg in South Asia – even though roughly 75 percent of African soils lack the nutrients needed to grow healthy crops.

Irrigation alone could boost the continent's agricultural output by 50 percent, and efficient use of fertilizer has been proven to triple yields. Imagine the future Africa could have if the appropriate investments and policies were in place to realize just these two interventions.

Of course, that would require a colossal commitment on the part of governments to building the appropriate infrastructure. How can we get fertilizer to farmers when just 16 percent of the roads are paved, and more than one third of sub-Saharan Africa's rural population lives five hours from the nearest market town of 5000 people? Upgrading the road systems would cost an estimated $38bn. On the other hand, it would increase yearly trade by as much as $250bn. This is the future that we should make every effort to reach.

In addition, two major sectors of society – women and young people – must be empowered in order for African agriculture to take off.

Given the central role of women in agriculture, as well as in ensuring household nutrition and wellbeing, their empowerment is a vital component of rural transformation. Africa’s overall GDP could grow by an estimated 11 percent if nutrition levels were improved. If women farmers had the same access to training and resources that men currently do, the number of malnourished people could be reduced significantly.

Meanwhile, Africans aged 14 to 25 comprise a vast workforce of 200 million. With youth unemployment and underemployment rates as high as 35 percent, however, much of that capacity to contribute to society is going to waste. Developing the whole agricultural value chain – from production to processing, marketing and consumption – is key to creating jobs, wealth and a hopeful future for this new generation.

To realize Africa’s potential, we need to dramatically change the way we look at agriculture. Smallholder farming is a significant economic activity, a business enterprise that feeds people and generates wealth. It is a dignified profession and needs to be treated as such, and not just as an activity of the rural poor.

We must take collective action to ensure that Africa’s future includes a vibrant and productive rural economy, which begins on the farm. Only then can we hope to see a continent that is prosperous and free of hunger.

Explore the infographic in full: