African economies are firing. Thanks to rapid growth and investment in the continent’s banking, telecommunication and extractive sectors. The growing ranks of a nascent consumer class are also driving cheap imports and retail. But Africa’s agricultural sector is comatose. African workers are hungry and their children suffer chronic malnutrition.
Even before the last world food crisis, one in three people and more than 30 percent of Africa’s children were malnourished. It is estimated that the number of hungry grew from 175 million in 1992 to 239 million in 2012. Undernutrition is directly or indirectly responsible for 3.5 million child deaths every year, and malnutrition is the cause of least 35 percent of the disease burden in children under 5 years old.
Africa has the lowest levels of land and labor productivity in the world. Africa’s agricultural output is about 50 percent of the world average. Agricultural productivity per capita has not kept pace with population growth. More than 80 percent of output growth since 1980 has come from the expansion of cropped areas, rather than from improved land productivity on existing agricultural land. Moreover, climate change could exacerbate the decline of Africa’s agricultural sector.
FAO estimates that Africa’s food import bill increased to $39.6 billion in 2012, a 30 percent increase from 2011. Without a 40 percent growth in domestic production, Africa is likely to spend about $ 150 billion on food imports by 2030. Compared to Asia and Latin America, Africa has seen a sharp decline in its share of agricultural export markets. The value of agricultural exports from Thailand, which has less than 10 per cent of Africa’s population, is now greater than the volume of exports from all of Sub-Saharan Africa.
A doubling of Africa’s average cereal yield to 2 tons per hectare would produce an extra 100 million tons of cereals per year. Such a bump in yield would offset Africa’s overburdening cereal imports estimated at 66 million tons in 2010. Poor soils, dependence on rainfall, dilapidated infrastructure, weak markets, insufficient access to technology, advisory and financial services constrain the growth of Africa’s agricultural sector.
The plight of Africa’s agriculture has moved the international community to act to save a wretched continent. Although the heart of the international community is often in the right place, their head seldom is. This is understandable because the scale and urgency of Africa’s hunger problem invariably demands action, not deliberate reflection and search for appropriate solutions.
Does Africa need an Asian style Green Revolution?
Motivated by the power and example of the Asian Green Revolution the global development community is absolutely confident that the Africa’s hunger could be solved with hybrid seed, fertilizer and pesticides alone. But we know that the Green Revolution is economically and ecologically unsustainable.
The one-size-fits-all simple technological package that utilizes high yielding variety seeds with a high response to big doses of subsidized inorganic fertilizers and chemical pesticides will not work for Africa’s complex mosaic of smallholder crop, livestock, and tree-based systems. That is why despite the huge investment by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) failed to promote a Green Revolution in Africa.
Africa’s context is complex and defies the simple solutions of the Asian Green Revolution. Africa’s irrigation potential is low, soils are highly variable and inherently nutrient poor. Moreover, Africa’s infrastructure challenge is huge. Africa has the lowest number of kilometers of road and railway per hectare of agricultural land in the world. Advances in biotechnology must be applied to improve fish, livestock as well as a large variety of vegetables, multipurpose trees, tuber crops, legumes and traditional cereals like sorghum and millet. Rice or wheat or maize alone won’t do.
Undoubtedly, Africa’s agriculture can learn from the Asian Green Revolution. Unfortunately, the new excitement around an African Green Revolution is not based lessons from the failures of its predecessor. The most important lesson must come through understanding local agro-ecosystems, their potential and constraints. Africa’s farming context faces multiple crises of natural resource degradation, climate change and globalization.
Ecologically sound, biotechnology driven, climate smart and a farmer centred approach is needed to revamp agriculture and deliver food security for African households. An agro-ecological approach, which taps local knowledge of biodiversity and ecosystem services, promotes farmer experimentation, and innovation for adaptive solutions, may be more sustainable than an Asian style Green Revolution underwritten by experts, whether “new” or “doubly green”.