This week I joined more than a dozen of the world’s sharpest minds on African agriculture in an unprecedented effort to devote an entire issue of the influential magazine Foreign Affairs to consider the future of the African farmer in our digital age.
I wanted to establish one simple fact: agriculture is poised to drive a new era of inclusive economic growth for Africa-but only if we focus on the small, family-run farms that are Africa’s main source of employment and produce the majority of what Africans eat.
The opportunity is clear. Africa’s growing population are creating a domestic market for food products that will be worth $1 trillion by 2030. But to tap this opportunity for Africa’s smallholder farmer, we need to stop thinking about them as subsistence growers and embrace their potential to generate income.
The very word subsistence implies a struggle to survive, not an effort to build a business that thrives. That is why no child of an African subsistence farmer wants to be a farmer. For the most part, they remember farming as a trade that kept them poor, because for the majority of Africa’s farmers, agriculture is a classic poverty trap. Subsisting becomes a full-time job. But African farms are fully capable of becoming profitable businesses.
Today, most farmers produce a fraction of what their lands can yield, mainly because they are not using improved seeds or fertilisers. It is true that many lack access to yield-improving farm inputs, including seeds, fertilisers and information. But more importantly, they rely on saved seeds because they know how they will perform. They cannot afford to gamble the unknown.
Many African farmers also wonder why they should invest in boosting production when they lack access to markets where they could sell their surplus. Africa faces significant challenges in this regard ranging from inadequate road infrastructure and underdeveloped routes, to market facilitation. And when African farmers do manage to get their produce to market, they often fail to get a fair return because they lack insights into commodity pricing.
So how do African farmers, a huge constituency that comprises 70 percent of our population, get beyond subsistence?
For starters, national governments and the development community can empower African farmers with more options in seeds, fertilisers and market opportunities.
The good news is that over the last decade, we at the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (Agra) have learned a lot about the local seed and soil needs on African farms. And we have seen many organisations intensify their efforts, including plant breeders at the CGIAR centres and soil experts at the International Fertiliser Development Centre. Also, new efforts, like the African Fertiliser and Agribusiness Partnership (Afap), are providing fertiliser blends suited to specific soil conditions. And there are innovative ways to scale up these solutions.
Digital innovations also are accelerating the shift to market-oriented agriculture. More than 750 million rural Africans already use mobile phones, which is why Nigeria now delivers seed and fertiliser vouchers directly to farmers through their phones. In its first year alone, the programme reached 1.7 million farmers and helped them produce an additional 8.1 million metric tonnes of food.
When I took office as Rwanda’s Agriculture minister, I knew Africa’s food problems were caused not by African farmers but by our own shortcomings in offering them solutions. We embraced policies that addressed their challenges and between 2005 and 2014, two million Rwandans (20 percent of the country’s population) lifted themselves out of poverty. Average annual income rose from less than $250 to almost $650. The World Bank attributed 65 percent of this increase to growth in the agricultural sector.
We did not get everything right in Rwanda. And yet, Rwanda’s commitment to smallholder agriculture shows what Is possible.
Now we need to see this kind of commitment spread across Africa. Give our farmers the opportunity to prosper and they can cultivate a promising economic future that delivers benefits for all Africans.