Sunday, September 19, 2021

Africa’s agricultural conundrum: Vast arable land versus low production

The 2019 Agriculture in Africa Report states that agriculture contributed more than US$100 billion to the GDP in 2016. The sector accounts for 15 percent of the continent’s GDP on average, but its contribution varies greatly from one country to another. For example, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), agriculture accounts for three percent of the GDP in Botswana and South Africa, compared with more than 50 percent in Chad, 40 percent in Ethiopia and 20 percent in Nigeria.

Partly due to years of under-investment, Africa has yet to fully realize its agricultural potential. According to the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), sub-Saharan Africa has “significantly improved its agricultural performance since the mid 1990s”, but the continent is still lagging behind the rest of the world in terms of land yields.

“The region’s agricultural productivity is about half the average growth seen in other developing nations. Modest yields result in large part from low use of fertilizers and improved seeds, a lack of mechanization and the fact that most still have smallholder farms, preventing them from making the profits necessary to appropriate bank loans and invest in their own plantations”.

According to global management consulting firm McKinsey, the production of cereal, grain, horticulture crops and livestock in Africa has the potential to be two to three times higher than its current level if the continent continues to concentrate on intensifying its agricultural productivity.

“Over the last three decades, increases in agricultural output in Africa have come largely through extending rain-fed crop cultivation, particularly food crops, on to more and more marginal soils and/or by reducing traditional fallow periods in cropping cycles”, the African Development Bank (AfDB) said. “Unfortunately, raising the productivity of crop enterprises through intensification per unit of land cultivated – for example, through increasing crop yields per hectare – has not been adequately promoted as a beneficial; important food security strategy”, it is argued.

According to the 2019 Report, if the African agricultural sector’s notable challenges can be overcome, agriculture could play an even larger part in transforming economies. In particular, governments across the continent are working with international organizations to find solutions to the ever rising effects of climate change.

Nevertheless, the overall picture is still quite bright: cultivated areas are expected to expand and farmers are set to increase their use of inputs, such as fertilizers, improved seeds, irrigation systems and mechanization. In fact, agricultural production is set to expand as challenges are met with innovative technologies and forward thinking policies.

The report states that the use of fertilizers in Africa is low by international standards. Africa’s consumption of fertilizers currently accounts for only three percent of the world’s consumption. Sub-Saharan Africa alone accounts for two percent of the global consumption and fertilizer usage was just a 15kg per hectare in 2017. Though it has increased from 9kg per hectare used in 2009, it remains remarkably low compared to other developing countries.

While Africa holds more than 60 percent of the world’s arable land, the continent’s share on global agricultural output is very low. Vast areas of land are not cultivated and productivity is lower than in the rest of the world.

It is estimated that on two-thirds of Africa’s arable lands, farmers do not have the necessary inputs to maintain soil fertility, meaning the use of improved varieties are only evident in relative gains in yields. The trend is similar when it comes to irrigation. This is compared to 14 percent in South America and 37 percent in Asia.

The irrigation system has improved slightly over the few years: total agricultural surface equipped with irrigation systems increased by a modest 1.5 percent in the 25 years from 1990 to 2015. This means that African agriculture is mostly rain-fed, making farmers particularly vulnerable to climate change and extreme weather events.  

“Chronic long term under-investment and poor governance have resulted in an agricultural sector that has been unable to play a role in transforming Africa’s economies, either by ensuring food security, creating jobs or reducing poverty. Now, the sector faces a number of challenges, the most notable of which is low productivity. This results from a variety of factors, some of which include low use of inputs and irrigation systems. In this context, farmers are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change – a fact that has shed light on the need for increased attention and investment in the continent’s promising agricultural sector”, states the Agriculture 2019 Report.

The report further observes that Africa’s agriculture recorded poor performance throughout the 1970s and 1980s, with production in sub-Saharan Africa growing on average by only one percent annually between 1970 and 1980, compared with three percent growth seen throughout Asia. Land productivity was also two to three times lower than that observed in Asia.

Despite challenges the African continent faces, the total value of agricultural production in sub-Saharan Africa increased by 130 percent between 1990 and 2013. The crops segment accounted for more than 60 percent of the total value of agricultural production in the region and Southern Africa accounted for roughly 22 percent.

According to IFPRI, the austerity measures imposed by the International Monetary (IMF) and the World Bank resulted in a reduction of government spending in the agricultural sector. In sub-Saharan Africa the share of public agriculture spending in the total budget declined on an annual average of 3.3 percent in the 1990s, down from 7.4 percent in the 1970s, though productivity remained low, with output per hectare of land at approximately US$180 in 1990. This was about one third of yields produced in Asia.

“In the face of growing challenges and the poor performance African agriculture, the early 2000s saw the adoption of a more comprehensive strategy to reduce poverty. This was intended to give agriculture a bigger role to play in the broader economy. The Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers – the new model designed by the IMF and the World Bank producing the SAPs – promoted a variety of strategies to improve agricultural yields. These involved the educated, informed use of technologies and modern management practices”, states the report.

According to the IFPRI, this change greatly helped improve productivity, which returned to levels previously seen in the 1970s. However, yields remained slightly lower than those of other developing regions.

In 2003 the African Union launched the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) which defined agriculture as a main engine of economic growth, and called on African governments to allocate 10 percent of their annual budget to the sector with the target of six percent annual growth. The Maputo commitments made in 2003 were renewed in 2014 in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea.

IFPRI states that one of the CAADP’s notable achievements has been that “it has significantly raised the political profile of agriculture. Some 40 countries had signed the CAADP agreements by the end of 2014, with many nations designing their own investment plans for the agricultural sector.

“However, the CAADP’s targets are still far from being met. Countries in sub-Saharan Africa only achieved 2.6 percent average annual growth rate in the agricultural sector between 2003 and 2009. Nevertheless, six countries – Angola, Ethiopia, Guinea, Mozambique, Nigeria and Rwanda – have managed to meet the growth goal of six percent. In regard to the investment target, in 2016 just 13 countries had successfully met their pledge to invest at least 10 percent of their budget in agriculture”, states the 2019 report.

According to the report, climate change is a concern at the forefront of many new processes and regulations. Of the 10 countries considered most vulnerable to climate change, eight are located in Africa, according to the ND-GAIN Vulnerability index, which was published by the US-based University of Notre Dame.

African countries are particularly vulnerable because farming is mostly rain-fed and often practiced in higher-risk areas such as flood plains, deserts and hillsides, which can contribute to excessive heat, erratic rainfall, proliferation of disease and extreme weather events. For example, in 2016 the most severe drought in decades hit East and South Africa, leaving about 36 million people facing hunger.

Climate change in particular represents a major challenge in efforts to improve food security on the continent. IFPRI estimates that though 209.5 million people in sub-Saharan Africa were at risk of hunger in 2010, that number is expected to decline by 10 percent as food production is forecast to increase by around 60 percent by 2050.

However, climate change will likely hamper these improvements. Indeed, without the effects of climate change, the number of people at risk of hunger in sub-Saharan Africa could be reduced to 150 million; roughly 38 million more people will be at risk of hunger than would have been the case without these weather changes. Another effect of climate change is that the malnutrition rate for children under the ages of five is expected to rise by 24.4 percent by 2050 from 21.7 percent currently.

At the same time, food needs are projected to grow significantly across the continent. Africa’s population, currently sitting at 1.3 billion people is expected to double by 2050. This means that African nations will have to boost their food production if they want to prevent food insecurity from surging and the agricultural trade deficit from worsening.

Indeed, even if exports have increased, they have been offset by even bigger growth in imports, causing Africa’s agricultural trade to deteriorate in recent years. All regions of the world – excluding South Africa – reported a deficit in their agricultural trade between 2001 and 2013. Countries in sub-Saharan Africa currently import approximately $15 billion in food crops, including grains, edible oils and sugar.

The continent is also becoming increasingly urbanized, and the wealthiest and fastest-growing countries are seeing the emergence of a strong middle class. These shifts mean that dietary patterns are also shifting and the demand for protein is increasing in response to these changes.

According to McKinsey, consumer spending will likely rise by $645 billion between 2015 and 2025, including by $167 billion for food and beverages. The food products market could be worth $1 trillion by 2030.   

The outlook for Africa’s food production does not look all bleak as prospects of the agricultural sector always looks positive. UN institutions expect cultivated areas to expand and farmers to increase their use of inputs, such as fertilizers, pesticides, improved seeds, irrigation stems and mechanization. Innovations and greater access to technologies are expected to aid in developing smart and precision farming techniques and promoting their widespread use.

Climate change is anticipated to be the most influential and is already affecting millions of farmers and households across the continent. In this context, experts have called on African governments to increase investment in the sector, including infrastructure and agri-business and continue improving their policies and governance. These changes would encourage agriculture to truly transform into one of the strongest pillars of Africa’s successful long-term economic development.

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