There are cycles in fashion in everything, so it shouldn't be a surprise to find that it's true of development policy in Africa too. And now, after twenty years in the doldrums, agriculture is back in the frame as the continent's most pressing problem. Not surprising when, as last month's UN Food and Agriculture Organisation crisis meeting on food prices was told, for thirty years food production has failed to keep pace with population growth (and much of the growth has been attributed to bringing more land into production), while farm productivity is a quarter of the global average, 30% of the population is malnourished and more than 200 million people in the region are chronically hungry.
But it's not the first time Africa has been challenged to create a green revolution. Attention turned away from agriculture partly because turning it round seemed such an intractable problem. Development foundered on a mix of over-ambitious state-backed schemes like the attempt at large scale ground nut production, or Nyrere's back to the village approach, while traditional forms of landholding complicated attempts at rationalising production.
Now a new crop of NGOs is in the field: there is the Kofi Annan-backed Agra, the Alliance for an African Green Revolution backed by $150 million of Rockefeller Foundation cash. Agra argues that a 1% growth in agriculture produces a 1.5% growth across the economy and it's trying to combine science and research with the needs of agricultural business and farmers to provide the equivalent of the technological inputs that triggered Asia's transformation.
Other organisations, like the International Assessment of Agriculture, Science and Technology focus on an environmentally-friendly approach to agriculture. They propose, for example, paying small holders not to drain wetlands or clear forest.
There are good reasons to expect agricultural growth to reduce poverty. Farming tends to be labour-intensive, creating low level, local jobs. Agricultural development raises returns to land, one of the few assets that the many rural poor in Africa have. Moreover, growth of food output should push down the price of staple foods, to the immense benefit of the poor who even in rural areas are overwhelmingly net buyers of food.
Parts of sub-Saharan Africa could be a breadbasket. But in the world's second largest continent, both climate and soil conditions vary enormously. In most countries infrastructure, markets and financial instruments are underdeveloped. Governance is erratic and has been damagingly influenced by the financial orthodoxy of international institutions like the IMF that dried up state support for the kind of public agricultural research and support that ensures European farmers keep up to date with the latest developments. There is no simple solution to Africa's under-production of food stuffs, nor is there a single answer that will bring food security to everyone.
But nor is it right to present African agriculture as one unremitting disaster area. It is vital to the region's economy. According to the latest UN report it contributes at least 40% of exports, 30% of GDP, up to 30% of foreign exchange earnings, and 70 to 80% of employment. Of the thirty fastest growing agricultural economies, the UK-based Overseas Development Institute points out, 17 are in Sub-Saharan Africa.
So, major investment in agriculture should pay off both in terms of food security at a time of soaring food prices, and in terms of national economic development. The debate now focuses on where that investment should go.
Most agrarian revolutions have seen a huge displacement of people from the land. Larger farms mean better returns on investment, economies of scale and leaps in productivity. There are voices arguing for a similar approach in Africa. Jon Maguire of Cru Investment is claiming astonishing results from his 3-year old project to develop commercial paprika-growing on the shores of Lake Malawi. The project, which now directly employs 2000 people and has a further 8000 families working as 'outgrowers', began with the idea of a food aid programme but swiftly turned into what Maguire says is both a poverty-alleviation programme and a global investment opportunity, all from the basis of taking a ten-year lease on 120 hectares of land and irrigating it instead of waiting for the rains.
But most African governments, according to private conversations with development organisations, are deeply suspicious of any move that takes people off the land. The failure of other parts of the economy to develop – manufacturing, for example – means there are few alternative jobs and the destabilising effects of a workless population living in shanty towns on the outskirts of capital cities are all too familiar.
So attention instead turns to how to increase productivity among what are mainly subsistence farms, and the debate turns to the role of technology and the complicated balance of simultaneously involving farmers in key decision-making while broadening horizons about new techniques and technologies.
In an interview in the Financial Times, Maguire argues that the traditional focus on small farms is wrong. Increasing profits depends on access to global markets which he offers his network of outgrowers through the scale of the central, irrigated land.
But in many parts of Africa – especially Uganda – the system of land tenure would make any accumulation of land impossible, even if Maguire's controversial prescription is right in some circumstances. In Europe, the profitability of small farms has been sustained through the Common Agricultural Policy, a fact that has not gone unnoticed by the Organisation for African Unity. It has recently prepared a report but it sets out such a raft of difficulties – incompatible legal systems, trade barriers, lack of infrastructure – that at best it is a medium to long-term prospect.
Steve Wiggins of the Overseas Development Institute warns that the new attention being paid to African agriculture bears risks: a tendency to reinvent the wheel, to hail ideas that have tried and failed in the past, and to set up false choices about, for example, biotechnology or organic, or town versus country. Wiggins, who has a lifetime experience in studying agricultural development in Africa, says progress depends on much more than enabling farmers to increase output and establishing a stable economy. The role of the state will be essential – directly, through agricultural research and development, but also indirectly.
There has to be sustained, long-term investment in road-building and road and rail transport, and a stable environment that encourages risk-tasking, and being prepared to intervene to ensure continuity of demand. Above all, though, governments will have to be prepared to be flexible – foregoing the charms of the single, national agricultural plan in favour of the local and the specific. That is the only way to get the best from Africa's diverse conditions. If the Maguire scheme really is as good as it appears, maybe in some circumstances at least, big farms and foreign capital really are the best short-term option.
Thursday, 10 July 2008
Securing our food, revisit'd...
Anne Perkins has written a nice little article in the Guardian which examines agricultural trends on the continent as well as what governments and academics suggest might help solve the current food crisis. It touches on the issues I raised in securing our food :
THEMES : agriculture