Can African farmers feed the world? The answer is “yes” but only if …
As far as leading African agronomists are concerned, Africa is playing a desperate game of catch-up, according to the technical body of the African Union. Africa is home to 60-65 per cent of the world’s uncultivated arable land and 10 per cent of renewable freshwater resources, and it has registered a 160 per cent increase in agricultural output over the past 30 years. A lack of adequate storage means “the continent loses food worth 4 billion dollars annually as post-harvest loss,” says Richard Munang, a senior official at the UN’s Environment Program. “Inefficiencies along Africa’s agro-value chains are the basis of food problems.” By upgrading and expanding facilities, while also boosting low electricity output, Africa could fast become food self-sufficient, just to start with. FAO adds that a shortage of silos and an erratic power supply also forces many food producers to turn to expensive diesel-fuelled generators in order to fire their water pumps and greenhouses. Some 30 per cent of all food produced across the world is lost to spoilage or waste.
“We can and would be happy to feed the world,” said Raajeev Bopiah, general manager of the East Usambara Tea company, which produces over 4 million kilograms of tea a year on its 5,000 acres of land in Tanzania, NEPAD tells. “We just need the knowledge and the funding.” Shoddy infrastructure haunts large swathes of the continent. The transport network in northern Tanzania is so poor that Bopiah’s tea-producing company is severely limited in the weight of goods it can haul on the 70km journey to the port at Tanga on the Indian Ocean. “You can’t transport more than four tons in a truck on mud roads-as opposed to the 20 tons I could do on proper roads. It’s costing me five times more!” Bopiah said.
“Transportation in Africa is so hard. It’s expensive and sometimes risky,” NEPAD quoted Ahmad Ibrahim of African Alligator, a mostly Ugandan firm that started off hauling carpets and elevators before moving into the sesame and peanut trade. Ibrahim says border waits “can be long, and goods perish.”
In the most egregious recent example of the pitfalls of overwhelmed harbour facilities, at least 10 ships carrying 450,000 tons of emergency wheat for drought-stricken parts of Ethiopia earlier this year were kept waiting out at sea for weeks because the port at Djibouti couldn’t cope with the volume of incoming cargo, NEPAD reports.
One of the biggest obstacles is the messy system of tariffs and inflexible border policies that govern relations between many of the continent’s 55 states. Only 13 countries offer visa-free or visa-on-arrival entry to all Africans, according to this year’s Africa Visa Openness Report. Businesses in landlocked nations in particular complain that shifting their produce across frontiers to ports is such a fraught exercise that they often incur huge losses in the process, the technical bit of the African Union reminds.
Corruption continues to undermine the hard work of small landholders and large agribusinesses alike. For companies that must haul their wares long distances or navigate bribe-happy transport hubs, it all cuts deep into their bottom line. Most countries on the continent lack agricultural banks and commercial banks tend to see agriculture as an overly risky bet. “They think the gestation period is just too long,” Bopiah said. “For example, if you want to plant a certain crop, it could take five years for it to start paying itself back.”
Deprived of access to finance, many farmers are unable to buy some of the tools or chemicals that might enable them to boost their yields. In a continent where wheat yields can be as low as 1-1.5 tons per hectare (in comparison to 3 or 4 tons elsewhere), these limitations are intensely problematic.
Ousmane Badiane, Africa Director at the Washington D.C-based International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), NEPAD reported, “With a quarter of people in Sub-Saharan Africa currently going hungry, the stakes are desperately high, and states will have to deploy the full arsenal of modern tools if they’re to feed not only themselves but booming populations elsewhere.”
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