Potential for African Production
IF POTENTIAL were edible, Africa would have the best-fed people on earth. The vast continent has 60% of the world’s uncultivated arable land, most of it unfarmed. The land already under cultivation, mostly by small farmers, could produce far more. Crop yields in Africa are between one-third and one-half of the global average. The quality of soil is often poor, because of overfarming, but that could be fixed by fertilisers. With the right know-how and inputs, Africa’s farmers could double productivity.
Yet Africa’s huge potential clashes with a brutal reality documented in a new report from theAlliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), a think-tank with headquarters in Kenya. Take the cost of fertiliser, for instance. Farmers in America pay a price on delivery of $226 per tonne. But in Zambia the price is $414. Shipping costs explain only a small part of the difference. The rest is accounted for by port duties, bribes, storage fees, fuel costs, the importer’s mark-up and the credit charges racked up as the fertiliser makes its tortuous journey from port to farm.
Farmers might bear the cost if they could be sure of selling their surplus produce at a good price. But the route to market is too precarious for most smallholders. Up to a fifth of surpluses is lost because of poor storage and roads. The shortage of credit forces small farmers to sell low rather than wait for the best seasonal prices. An agreed grading standard would help: banks might be willing to lend against produce that had been graded on receipt by a warehouse. Data on prices and stocks gathered in this way would also help farmers to judge better what to produce and when.
Some bottlenecks are not easy to clear. To build a network of rural roads is hard. But small investments can make the whole difference. There are cases where a starving part of a country is cut off from another part with plenty of food for want of a bridge, says David Ameyaw, a Ghana-born American who edited the AGRA report. Money spent on research can also have a big pay-off as it helps governments to gauge which policies work best. Africa has just 70 agricultural researchers for every million people, says AGRA. The comparable figure for Latin America is 550; for North America it is 2,640.
Africa never seems short of policy drives, even if the patience to stick with them is often lacking. It can take between six and eight years to prove to farmers that a scheme works, says Mr Ameyaw. Most do not last so long. Yet some new initiatives show promise. Nigeria’s agricultural policy is based on two principles: the government cannot displace the private sector; and farming should be treated as a business from seeds to storage. The state has given up supplying seeds and fertiliser directly to farmers, as this breeds corruption. Farmers now get credits on their mobile telephones that can be used to buy inputs from private suppliers.
Such schemes place trust in markets. All too often they are overridden. City folk can become restless when food prices rise: the temptation to cap prices, ban exports or subsidise imports can be too great for governments to resist. But agricultural markets are destroyed in the process. Smallholders are discouraged from producing surplus crops. And the huge potential of farming in Africa continues to go unrealised.
Source: Farming in Africa, The Economist http://www.economist.com/blogs/baobab/2013/09/farming-africa?fsrc=scn/fb/wl/bl/coldcomfortfarms