African agriculture at the crossroads

Posted: 2017-01-09
Written by: EU Network
Category: Battle of ideas
Tagged: sustainable development sustainable social research economics africa

Agriculture has been described as the lifeblood of Africa. Africa is the world's second-largest and second-most-populous continent and it  accounts about 15% of the world's human population. Africa's population is the youngest amongst all the continents, the median age in 2012 was 19.7, when the worldwide median age was 30.4.  Despite the fact that Africa is a resource-rich, it remains the world's poorest and most underdeveloped continent.

Poverty, illiteracy, malnutrition, inadequate water supply and sanitation affect a large proportion of the people living in Africa.  High rates of poverty prevail, especially in major agro-ecological zones such as the Sub-Humid “Guinea Savannah” and Semi-Arid “Sahel” regions where more than 50% of people live on less than US$ 1.25 a day.

Agriculture remains a central part of the African economy and the daily lives of the majority of Africans, accounting for just over 60% of jobs across the continent. According to recent statistics, the agriculture sector represents only a quarter of African Gross domestic product.

Gap between employment and income in Africa and other countries in 2014.


Source: Feed Africa Strategy for agricultural transformation in Africa 2016–2025

Under conditions of rapid human population growth, rural households have been forced to adopt agricultural practices that guarantee their survival. In recent years, while commodity prices were relatively high — particularly minerals of which Africa is home to a third of the world’s reserves, Africa was a particularly fast-growing region with average annual growth around 5%. However, the decline of natural resource prices contributed to at least ten African currencies losing more than 10% of their value in 2014. There is an ugent need for African economies to diversify their sources of foreign exchange earnings, especially into less volatile markets such as agricultural commodities and food.

Average yields across Africa versus best practice  Tonnes/(hectares or animals) in 2013


Note: Best practices = average of top 10 countries in the world by yield in the commodity.

Source: Feed Africa Strategy for agricultural transformation in Africa 2016–2025

With African countries facing challenges from decline in commodity prices, coupled with currency depreciations, the macroeconomic and fiscal pressure of food imports are becoming unbearable. Dependency on food imports is depressing domestic currencies, driving up inflation, while causing huge unemployment in rural areas, especially among the youths.  


2 - Out of Africa

Source: Feed Africa Strategy for agricultural transformation in Africa 2016–2025

Africa’s economic growth has not been sustainable and, in some cases, previous gains have been lost because of the historic dependence on raw commodity trade. The low productivity of African agriculture exacts a high human and economic cost. It  makes African agriculture an uncompetitive sector; around a third of all calories consumed in Africa are imported, resulting in a negative net agricultural trade balance in 2015.

African urbanization rates millions of people, 2000-2025


Source: Feed Africa Strategy for agricultural transformation in Africa 2016–2025

The share of Africans living in urban areas is projected to increase to almost half by 2025; and 70% by 2050, according to Feed Africa Strategy for agricultural transformation in Africa 2016–2025. Urbanization is driving an increased demand for high-value food products that are not currently being supplied in sufficient quantity and quality by African farmers. The urban population in Africa has increased and the percentage of the population living in urban areas approaching 40%. Africans move to cities, their consumption patterns change as they are exposed to higher quality, often imported, food — specifically premium cereals, dairy, poultry, beef and vegetables. For example, Africans living in cities consume 70% premium rice, whereas rural Africans eat mostly standard rice.

In 2014, over 60% of people in Africa lived in rural areas and relied on agriculture for their livelihoods, and women in Africa made up at least half of the agricultural labor force, according to the latest data of Word Bank Databank, Agriculture and Rural Development. Transforming the agriculture sector should be harnessed towards a vital impact on inclusive growth on the continent.

The enhancement of sustainable agricultural and rural development is therefore fundamental to the attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals in Africa, particularly the eradication of hunger and poverty.


The Feed Africa Strategy further echoes the commitments made under the Comprehensive African Agricultural Development Program (CAADP) as articulated in the Maputo (2003) and the Malabo (2014) Declarations. Feed Africa is a renewed and determined effort to transform African Agriculture into a globally competitive, inclusive and business-oriented sector that creates wealth, generates gainful employment and improves quality of life. It also seeks to bring to scale existing and successful initiatives across Africa and beyond.

Feed Africa strategy has 4 core goals:
• to contribute to eliminating extreme poverty in Africa;
• to end hunger and malnutrition in Africa;
• to make Africa a net food exporter;
• to move Africa to the top of the global value chains.

In line with Feed Africa strategy goals, 320 million people should no longer classified as undernourished by 2025. In addition, 130  million would be lifted out of extreme poverty.

African agriculture must become more productive and sustainable and less wasteful.


Mainstreaming organic agriculture into the African development agenda

Nearly all of Africa's farms de facto are "organic." Poor and non-productive, but organic.

For example, cereal crop yields in Africa are only one-third as high as in developing Asia, and only one-tenth as high as the United States. Average income from this kind of farming amounts to only a dollar a day, which is why nearly 80 percent of all those officially classified as poor in Africa are farmers, and why one third of all farmers are chronically malnourished.

African agriculture is largely traditional and practised by smallholders. This type of agriculture is predominantly rain-fed, has low-yielding production, and lacks access to critical information, market facilitation, and financial intermediation services. Urbanization, higher food prices, demographic and climatic changes are fundamentally changing the environment in which Africa’s agriculture operates.  The escalating challenge of climate change means that climate smart agriculture is now no longer an option but a core necessity.

Without modern agricultural science, food production in Africa has fallen ominously behind population growth.  The most sustainable choice for agricultural development is to increase total farm productivity as well paying more attention to organic agriculture which plays a key role in sustainable development, food security, poverty reduction, environmental security, climate change adaptation, human health, preservation of plant varieties and animal breeds as well as socio-cultural development.

Organic farming is one of the best practices in ensuring environmental sustainability. It sustains the fertility of soils, ecosystems and sustains the health of people. It relies on locally adapted improved ecological processes and cycles, and natural biodiversity rather than the use of synthetic inputs and genetically modified materials.

United Nations findings from across Africa suggest that export and domestically-oriented organic farming can help increase the income and livelihood conditions of smallholders. For example, studies on export-oriented organic cotton, fruits and vegetable production found that these productions opened new and financially rewarding market opportunities, which boosted the income and livelihoods of smallholder farmers. Other studies also concluded that the income of contractually linked export oriented organic producers could be consistently higher than that of conventional, spotmarket dependent farmers.

According to latest researches, nearly 5 000 farmers in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ghana, Senegal and Sierra Leone are exporting organically-grown products to Europe after gaining organic and fair-trade certificates. Despite the fact that organic agriculture is a growing sector in Africa,  recent literature and survey results suggest that organic agriculture stakeholders have insufficient access to funding, particularly in strategic areas such as certification, producer organization, research, and the purchase of equipment. In Africa, access to credit and other financial services is more restricted in agriculture than in other sectors of the economy. Despite positive signs, such as growing markets and potentially higher profitability, access to finance in the organic farming  sector remains constrained and survey results do not suggest the situation is improving. High perceived levels of risk, limited market and infrastructure development, the cost and lack of accessibility of credit, an unsupportive regulatory environment as well as uncertainties arising from the informality of the sector, are some of the most commonly identified barriers that limit the financing of African agriculture.

The specific needs for transformation vary depending on country, but overall goal is to transform African agriculture into a competitive and sustainable sector with a wide range of economic, environmental,  social benefits that creates wealth.


Science and technologies are transforming the agricultural sector more than ever before.  Africa needs to invest more in science and technology to become more efficient and competitive in agriculture – and to diversify rapidly its economies. From the use of modern biotechnology, drones, smart systems for efficient management of water and nutrients, technologies and innovations are turning farms into “intelligent farms”.

The role of technology in agriculture has been addressed in a flagship initiative named “Technologies for Africa’s Agricultural Transformation” as part of the Feed Africa strategy.  
There are now more than 700 million mobile phone users in Africa, this is eight times more than the number of mobile subscribers in Africa in Year 2000, according to a report by the International Telecommunication Union.

Mobile phones, GPS systems, barcode scanners, smart card readers are all examples of technologies that can be used to capture, read and store data. It is important to build mobile services that impact farmers’ income and productivity and to test models for delivering agricultural information services via mobile phones.  An integrated information system for agriculture stakeholders minimizes the duplication of data and ensures consistency, improves integrity of the data and can address a wide variety of information needs.  


Promoting use of modern technologies in agriculture may stimulate the development of mobile phone-enabled agriculture information and advisory services that are commercially sustainable. Adopting modernized, commercial agriculture is key to transforming Africa and the livelihoods of its people.  

There is importance to highlight following aspects in order to modernise agriculture in Africa:
• Research and trainings to conduct participatory, interdisciplinary, multi-cultural research among involved stakeholders towards  innovative solutions.
• Information and communication: to develop information and communication strategies to sensitize the stakeholders and the general public on the value and practices of agriculture.
• Value chain and market development: to increase trade of products from Africa on domestic, regional and export markets.
• Networking and partnership: to strengthen synergies among stakeholders and beneficiaries to support agriculture through networks and partnerships based on available best practices, and to provide guidance in support of the development of sustainable organic farming systems.
• Supportive policies and programmes: to support the development and implementation of enabling policies and programmes.
• Institutional capacity development and civic engagement.

Empowerment of African women

Africa’s increased integration into agricultural regional and global value chains is crucial for its continued transformation. Agriculture is a critical sector on the continent accounting for 60% of employment, and is essential for improved food security, increased household incomes and sustainable livelihoods. Women make up almost 50 % the agricultural labour force in Africa. Women work primarily in smallholder production; however, they receive a significantly lower share of income in comparison to men in the same sub-sector. Depending on the country, the rural wage gap between men and women in Africa estimates 15–60% . Women work largely on family-owned land, with little or no remuneration, and women’s land ownership rates are also significantly lower than those of men. Even if they do own the land, they tend to have limited access to financing, quality inputs and knowledge of agricultural practices.

Agriculture provides significant opportunities for gender mainstreaming and the empowerment of women. Women’s presence in the agricultural labour force is significant.

Furthermore, while agriculture is a crucial component of the African economy, half the workforce has limited access to the tools and support that would enable substantially increased production and output. The consqeuence is that, depending on the country, women produce up to 25 % less per hectare than men. Empowering women in the continent is not only a moral imperative, it is critical for the broader economic success. Promoting the participation and productivity of women should have a direct impact on improved food security though increased productivity, improved quality of life of the rural communities supported by them through higher household incomes, and increasingly sustainable livelihoods through broader participation and access to regional and global value chains. There is  no better overlapping opportunity to support women’s economic empowerment.

Agriculture remains highly underdeveloped in Africa. The path for Africa is not yet clear. Not only does the continent have the lowest yield of any global region, but huge tracts of land remain unutilized. Africa has 25 % of the world’s arable land, yet it generates only 10 % of global agricultural output, according to statistics. Brazil and China are two examples of how agriculture can be developed. Brazil is now the biggest producer of ethanol and a world leader in agricultural exports using commercial farming approach. China has managed to move hundreds of millions out of poverty through rural development focused on improving small-scale agriculture. Africa’s characteristics will require a model that is a mix of Brazil and China.

African countries need to pursue policies and programs that will allow the continent to become a food exporting region, while using agricultural industrialization to add value to processed foods and export commodities. Leadership, communication and creative thinking are required to initiate and sustain agriculture projects promoting  sustainability, diversification and job creation.

------------- Authors----------------

Sintija Bernava

Sintija Bernava holds Master Degree in Public Administration and Management and Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science. She has  a long-standing extensive professional experience holding  high-profile positions in the Office of the Prime Minister of Latvia and  Parliament of Latvia.  Sintija Bernava was the only European Union scholar of the Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India ITEC  program ''Entrepreneurship Education to Strengthen Emerging Economies''  in India (2016).  Sintija Bernava is President, Chairwoman of the Board of Non Governmental Organisation ‘’Donum Animus’’, Program Director of social inclusion program ‘’Life Skills Academy’’

William Adelard Laswai

William Adelard Laswai holds MSc. Economics-Economic Policy and Planning, Mzumbe University(Morogoro Tanzania); BSc.Agricultural Economics and Agribusiness-Sokoine University of Agriculture (Morogoro Tanzania). William Adelard Laswai  is Senior Agriculture Tutor, Agricultural Training Institute of the Ministry of Agriculture Livestock and Fisheries (Tanzania)


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