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How to boost agriculture in Africa

My expertise is in growing businesses, not crops. But you don't need to be a farmer, a soil scientist or a policy expert to know that agriculture is key to Africa's future.

How, after all, could this not be the case? Agriculture remains, by far, our continent's biggest industry and biggest employer. Although there has been remarkable success in many other sectors, agriculture still accounts for nearly 40% of the gross domestic product (GDP) of African countries and the livelihoods of seven out of 10 people. Evidence from Asia and Latin America also shows that increasing agricultural productivity is a powerful motor for wider economic development.

This is why the gathering in Mozambique last week of many of our continent's leaders in agriculture was so important. The African Green Revolution Forum in Maputo had the task of finding ways to accelerate the transformation of agriculture on the continent.

The goal is not just to produce enough food for the 240-million of our fellow citizens who still don't have enough to eat but, in the longer term, to export surplus production to the rest of the world to increase revenue and tackle global hunger. By doing so, we will drive our continent's already impressive economic growth forward and, importantly, ensure it is widely and fairly shared.

Though an ambitious goal, given all the challenges to be overcome, it is firmly within our grasp. After all, Africa has as much as 60% of global uncultivated arable land and, in many parts of our continent, plentiful water for sustainable irrigation. We have, too, a youthful, energetic and resourceful population that, with the right support, could transform agricultural production.

New priority

The good news, too, is that this support is finally beginning to be provided. Governments around Africa are giving a new priority to agriculture and rural development. The African Union's Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme, signed in Maputo a decade ago, has provided an important impetus and cohesion to these efforts.

We have also seen new partnerships and ground-breaking initiatives being launched through the Alliance for the Green Revolution in Africa (Agra) to put our continent's smallholder farmers at the centre of the transformation we need.

Focusing on smallholders does not mean that big commercial farms don't have a major role to play. By putting themselves at the centre of the local farming community, as many already do, they can re-energise agriculture. Instead, the focus on smallholders is a simple and pragmatic recognition that it is only by unlocking the potential of our continent's 33-million smallholdings that improvements can be delivered at the speed and scale needed.

It is smallholders who, after all, produce the overwhelming majority of Africa's food. And it is by helping them, their families and communities to thrive that we can have the biggest impact on spreading prosperity.

Across the continent, Agra's work is helping to make a difference from the field to the market: increasing harvests, improving the supply chain, providing new investment, developing new businesses and boosting incomes. Over 400 new crop varieties, for example, have been specifically developed in Africa for our continent's unique conditions.

African farmers and agricultural businesses have shown time and time again that, if we provide them with the opportunity, they will seize it with both hands. We now need to provide these opportunities to more farmers and communities.

True partnership

So how do we achieve this ambition? My experience over decades in business has taught me that there is no more powerful motor for progress than by combining the complementary powers of the public and private sectors. They can forge a true partnership with governments to provide the right policy, legal and financial framework in which the dynamism of the private sector can thrive.

Building and strengthening these public-private partnerships was the key focus of the forum last week. In particular, discussions centred on how to attract new investment and credit to farming.

Such a change is urgently needed because the existing finance mechanisms are still badly failing to meet the need. Investment in such an important industry remains well below what is required to bring a step change in production. And, although agriculture accounts for nearly 40% of the GDP of some African countries, only 0.25% of bank lending goes to smallholder farmers. The result is that farmers and small agribusinesses struggle to get the finance to invest in new seed, fertiliser or equipment.

But, by bringing smallholders together, we can reduce risks and increase economies of scale to make these customers more appealing to those who provide credit.

Technological innovation can also be used to reduce costs and meet these needs for investment and credit. Africa is already setting a global lead in mobile banking, a sector I know well, and there is a great deal more we can do in this area.

By building new public-private partnerships, we can ensure African agriculture reaches its rich potential to increase food production and drive prosperity. Indeed, this is already happening in areas as diverse as innovative finance, improving warehousing and funding irrigation projects. We need to find ways to scale up these initiatives.

The seeds of success are already planted. The challenge in Maputo and beyond is to provide the conditions in which they can grow.

Strive Masiyiwa is chairperson of Econet Wireless and vice-chairperson of the board of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, a co-sponsor of the African Green Revolution Forum that took place in Maputo last week.

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