Analysis

Smallholder farming the surest route to African growth

Jane Karuku

The numbers speak for themselves: Africa's smallholder farmers can be agriculture's game changers of the 21st century.

The growth of labour-intensive organic farming is creating more jobs. (Madelene Cronjé, M&G)

When Africa’s heads of state gather for the African Union summit later this month, a leading item on their agenda is to determine the policies that will shape an agricultural market projected to be worth a trillion dollars by 2030 – three times its size in 2010.

We may argue that this market is beset by volatility and incoherence, but one thing is certain: no one should underestimate Africa’s entrepreneurial drive or the potential of millions of its smallholder farmers to feed the continent and the world. Africa’s smallholder farmers can be agriculture’s game changers of the 21st century.

The numbers speak for themselves. Up to 80% of the food we eat in Africa is produced by smallholder farmers – people who tend crops and raise livestock on less than a hectare of land – and most of them are women.

The reality is that the real output from this class of farmers remains far below their potential. When Africa’s farmers get hold of what their counterparts elsewhere in the world take for granted, they will rapidly catch up. That means empowering them with access to finance, better seeds and fertile soil, reliable markets and secure rights to their land, effective extension services and supportive policies. Policymakers can further fuel Africa’s agricultural development by overcoming obstacles that limit the productivity of women farmers relative to men.

By putting these basic principles into practice and forging strategic, well-considered partnerships, Africa’s smallholder farms can succeed as businesses connected to thriving local, regional and global markets. When Africa’s smallholder farmers prosper, Africa and the world will prosper.

The alternative is grim. Half of the population in Africa lives in extreme poverty, with more than 60% in remote rural areas where agriculture is the main economic activity. This is unlikely to change any time soon, making the case for policies that will improve their lot.

Further, between 2012 and 2050, the population in most of sub-Saharan Africa will more than double, putting it at 11.3 times its 1950 level.

Agriculture is by far the surest way by which the world can give all Africans the opportunity to have healthy diets, earn income and live dignified lives. Research by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations shows that growth in sub-Saharan Africa’s agriculture sector is 11 times more effective at reducing poverty than growth in other sectors.

When the heads of state meet, they will have an opportunity to demonstrate commitment to Africa’s smallholders and to accelerate progress under the AU’s comprehensive Africa agriculture development programme.

Launched 10 years ago by the AU in Maputo and approved by African governments, the programme calls on these governments to commit at least 10% of their annual national budgets to agriculture, and to achieve 6% annual agricultural growth by 2015.

Over the past decade, the programme has helped to raise global awareness that agriculture is central to Africa’s development. During this time, international partners have reversed the precipitous decline in official development assistance for agriculture, committing tens of billions of dollars to growing African agriculture.

A few countries, such as Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, Ghana and Rwanda, have made huge progress in expanding and modernising their agricultural sectors, providing lessons and inspiration for others. These countries have seen a massive decrease in poverty rates: Ethiopia by 49%, Ghana by 44% and Burkina Faso by 37%.

As the AU marks the Year of Agriculture and Food Security, African governments need to be challenged to make good on their Maputo commitments and implement effective strategies to achieve the targets. Governments need to engage more with public and private sector partners to unleash new sources of finance and technology for agriculture in Africa.

They need to leverage the fact that there are many committed allies with similar priorities, including the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa. They are focused on strengthening public-private partnerships that offer practical solutions for African farmers and agribusinesses so that they may create their own sustainable path to a food-secure future in Africa.

Let 2014 be the year when African governments move from rhetoric to action – when they keep the promise made to the people in Maputo by stepping up their commitments, and taking bold steps to bring about meaningful change in the lives of the continent’s smallholder farmers.

By empowering them, we can change the rules of the game and initiate a decade of unprecedented agricultural transformation.

Jane Karuku is president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa. See www.agra.org

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