/ 21 September 2009

Agriculture is our way out

Experts say Africa can pull itself out of poverty by subsidising farmers, write Mohamed Fofanah and Nalisha Kalideen.

Rodger Phiri has found his fortune in farming.

While a good number of farmers in Africa have struggled to survive because of bad harvests, drought and poor-quality seed, Phiri is one of the few exceptions.

Phiri benefited from the Zambian government’s fertiliser subsidy programme which paid for half of his and about 150 000 other smallholding farmers’ fertilisers.

For delegates at the Food Agriculture Natural Resources and Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN) regional dialogue, Phiri’s story is a shining example of how agricultural expansion can lead to economic development.

The dialogue, held this month in Mozambique, brought together about 200 representatives ranging from government ministries, the private sector, farmers and researchers from 28 countries around the world.

Delegates agreed that if agricultural development is not placed at the core of Africa’s agenda, there will be no development on the continent. And to some extent, Phiri’s story shows.

Phiri grows maize, cotton, tobacco and peanuts, but when he first started he only used a small portion of his land.

“I started farming on five hectares of land but since I started getting the subsidies, I am now able to work on 20 hectares,” he said.

Phiri’s, and other farmers’, increasing wealth has had a knock-on effect on the community. “[The government] has also been constructing roads in the rural areas where our farms are, and providing information and markets for our crops,” Phiri said. “Now I am exporting and making lots of money.”

Not every farmer has enjoyed such success but Phiri’s result is one delegates of the FANRPAN dialogue would like to see multiplied across the continent.

Delegates urged African governments to continue investing in agricultural subsidies and in smallholding farmers. Agriculture is the most important livelihood throughout Africa, accounting for more than 70% of employment.

Dialogue participants noted that in the quest to develop agriculture across Africa, farm input subsidy programmes such as the one Phiri benefited from, have contributed greatly to improved food security positions.

Delegates recognised Mozambique for reducing rural poverty by 15% over the past decade through several agricultural development programmes aimed at increasing the productivity of smallholding farmers.

The country launched its Green Revolution Strategy in 2007 in response to high food and fuel prices. The strategy targets smallholding farmers as well as medium- and large-scale farmers.

A decentralised budget was created which allocates money to local communities to take charge of designing and carrying out projects they choose to improve income, food production and job creation.

And the results are already showing; crop production has increased, which in turn, has improved food security levels.

Dr Firmino Mucavele, director for academic reform and regional integration at Mozambique’s Eduardo Mondlane University, said his country’s programmes have definitely had a positive impact on the economy.

“In the last 10 years, growth in the agricultural sector has been significant in terms of employment and income-generation,” Mucavele said. “Even though productivity is low, what has been implemented has been good. I think we can do much better, though.”

However, subsidy programmes do not come without problems. Criticism has been levelled against Malawi’s subsidy programme, where government prioritised the agricultural sector by allocating 14% of the country’s budget to the sector. But not all farmers have benefited from this. The surplus of produce has forced many of them to sell at lower prices dictated by the purchaser. The Malawian government is now addressing the issue of price undercutting.

Experts have also cautioned that there are potential risks with subsidy programmes that governments need to be wary of.

Hans Binswanger, a private agriculture and rural development consultant, said earlier this year: “If not designed and implemented properly, they [subsidies] can cause disruptions in markets, resulting in high prices which are costly to the government and people. This undermines the intended benefits of the fertiliser and seed subsidy programmes.”

Recent success of subsidies provides only partial answers. Mucavele explained that there are issues that need to be addressed before the success of agricultural growth can be sustainable.

He identified the lack of access to credit as one obstacle.

“Agriculture has a lot of risk and uncertainty, so as a result most banks don’t really want to finance agriculture.”

He also said in most of Africa, women’s lack of property rights meant that they were stripped of all family assets upon the deaths of their husbands.

Delegates also pointed out that there are still gaps that require further research and dialogue in Africa. Participants expressed interest in further research on understanding the contribution women and the youth make to agriculture, the role of livestock and the role of biotechnology can play. — IPS Additional reporting by Salma Ahmad and Joyce Mulama