When the economies of Nigeria and South Africa recently rebounded, it wasn’t oil or minerals that did the trick. It was farming. Faster and more sustainable agricultural growth is crucial not only to the continent’s economy, but also to its ability to feed and employ its surging population.
Agriculture still accounts for a quarter of gross domestic product and as much as two-thirds of employment in sub-Saharan Africa. In fact, agricultural growth has the biggest impact on non-farm income and reducing poverty.
Unfortunately, Africa’s agricultural productivity is about half the global average, while population pressures and intense cultivation have degraded 65 percent of its cropland and 30 percent of its pasture. African agriculture, which is overwhelmingly rain-fed, is also uniquely vulnerable to climate change.
Growing more food in a more sustainable way will require buy-in from small-plot farmers, who account for 90 percent of all farms in sub-Saharan Africa. While there were three farmers for every city dweller in 1990, rapid urbanization means that by 2020 one farmer will have to feed two of his or her urban counterparts. Even as regional famines have revived debate about the need to scale up agribusiness, making small-scale farming more productive, sustainable and profitable will remain key to feeding and employing the continent.
The good news is that governments are spending more on agriculture, which Nigeria’s previous administration dubbed “the new oil.” Private investment is also increasing, both in cultivation and in offering farmers more options for buying seed and fertilizer and selling their crops. Foreign donors can help by reviving their agricultural aid, which has lagged in recent years — especially by increasing support for universities and vocational programs. Joint efforts to restore degraded land are also gaining momentum.
Realizing Africa’s vision of a continent-wide free-trade area would open up a bigger internal market. Cutting red tape, harmonizing standards, and making it easier for small farmers to get insurance and credit would also help.
Of course, more roads, irrigation networks, ports and other infrastructure are also necessary to make farming more efficient. But progress does not necessarily depend on money spent. When it comes to Africa’s millions of small farmers, even a cheap and reliable paper moisture meter — vital for measuring whether crops are dry enough to store and avoid spoilage — can make a huge difference.