Sub-Saharan African agriculture could, and should, be thriving. According to the World Bank, the region has the right conditions to feed itself: enough fertile farmland, enough water and enough favourable climates. According to the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the Africa Progress Panel and others, Africa has the potential not only to feed itself, but also to become a major food supplier for the rest of the world.
Yet Africa is far from realising this potential. For too long, Africa’s agriculture sector was neglected. African governments failed over many decades to invest adequately in the agriculture sector and to create a policy and regulatory environment in which smallholder farmers could flourish. Compared to a sharp rise in domestic spending in Asia, public spending on agriculture in Africa stayed stagnant and low throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Meanwhile, donor assistance to agriculture was slashed 72% between 1988 and 2003.
As a result, Africa’s cereal crop yields today are nearly as low as they were several decades ago, and just a fraction of those in Latin America and South Asia. Today, Africa is a net food buyer, looking outside the continent to feed its growing and increasingly urban population. It faces challenges such as poor infrastructure, expensive fertiliser, poor access to extension and financial services, unreliable and unpredictable markets, low use of technology, and limited land security. Women, who constitute almost half of the agricultural labour force, have consistently lower access to the productive resources listed above, and thus cannot contribute as much as their potential. As a result, Africa’s smallholder farmers, particularly women, have been left unable to produce enough food to feed their families or sell surplus to markets to generate income.
Unlocking Africa’s agricultural potential would also unlock its development. Farming is Africa’s main livelihood: the majority of Africans depend on agriculture for their incomes. Women comprise close to half of the agricultural labour force. Investing in agriculture, particularly closing the gender gap, is one of the best ways to reduce poverty in Africa. According to FAO analysis, growth in the agriculture sector is 11 times as effective at reducing poverty as growth in other sectors in sub-Saharan Africa.
Earnings from agriculture make up around 30% of GDP across the continent and more than 56% of the African labour force depends on agriculture for their incomes. When connected to markets, smallholder farmers can generate an income and create a ‘multiplier effect’ – sending their children to school and stimulating the economy in order to help lift their community out of poverty for the long term. Crucially, if women farmers received equal investment, productivity in Africa could rise by 20-30%, reducing the numbers of those experiencing hunger by 100-150 million, producing more for markets, increasing incomes for women, and providing more food for children.
African leaders, donors, and the private sector need to invest in African agriculture, and African leaders in particular need to adopt sound agricultural and rural development policies to realise the sector’s potential. The obstacles to African agriculture growth are well understood. They include poor infrastructure, limited fertiliser use, lack of access to extension services and markets, weak utilisation of technology and inputs, and poor land security.
We are at a critical moment for African agriculture. African governments have recently made historic commitments to improve the sector, and both African governments and donors have recently renewed these commitments at the African Union (AU) Summit in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea. Now countries must transform those promises into concrete financing and policy reforms, particularly through improving their CAADP plans. Progress over the past decade is undeniable. Where political will, domestic investment, increased aid and effective plans have been combined, we see impressive results demonstrating the poverty-reducing potential of agriculture. Countries such as Ghana, Ethiopia and Burkina Faso have experienced rapid agricultural growth; in some cases outpacing growth in other sectors. Yet many other countries are lagging in commitment, resources and results.
With renewed commitment from African leaders to revitalise agriculture, and in the first year of the Sustainable Development Goals, momentum is building to create continent-wide political focus. The SDGs are a clear signal for African leadership, backed by donors, to truly transform African agriculture and deliver on its poverty-reducing potential.