Farming Output Holds Key to African Progress

The recent African Union (AU) summit in Equatorial Guinea concluded with a “unanimous” call for agricultural transformation to drive development in Africa. Heads of state and other African leaders called for increased investment in agriculture, new technology, better access to land and inputs, and peace and security to allow markets to expand unhindered.

We strongly back this call. It makes sense. Agriculture already contributes significantly to African gross domestic product and employs 60% of the population. More than two-thirds of Africa’s poor live in rural areas, and agriculture is their most important economic activity.

It stands to reason, then, that making agriculture more efficient, more modern and more inclusive will bring myriad benefits. Investment in agriculture would increase wages, reduce poverty and inequality, and reduce Africa’s reliance on food imports. The Africa Progress Panel was right in its recent report to say that Africa has the potential to feed not just itself, but the world.

The African Transformation Report, launched earlier this year in Johannesburg, makes similar points. The report identifies agriculture — and in particular an increase in agroprocessing — as one of the most promising potential drivers of transformation for African countries. By moving up the value chain from smallholder agriculture to increased agroprocessing, Africa could not only reap higher value, but also generate more employment and therefore better utilise the comparative advantage that comes from a large workforce and abundant land.

If successful, this African green revolution would have substantial spillovers for other sectors of the economy. Agroprocessing would drive skilled employment, and increase income and foreign exchange, which in turn could be invested to help domestic players overcome the barriers that prevent them from competing globally.

The potential is clear. A more modern and efficient agricultural sector in Africa would increase incomes in rural areas, boost exports and provide the foreign exchange needed to import machinery and inputs for industry. It could supply the raw materials to support agricultural processing industries, and ultimately release labour from agriculture to manufacturing and other sectors. It could boost the supply of food to the growing urban areas and the industrial labour force, thus moderating rises in the cost of living and wages.

A revolutionised agriculture would expand the markets for inputs and consumer goods and services in nonagricultural sectors. If we can realise this opportunity, Africa’s natural resource abundance will benefit all Africans, particularly the poorest and most vulnerable. It is a goal worth aiming for.

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