Agriculture should be a “knowledge-based entrepreneurial activity”

As the horn of Africa’s most severe drought in decades continues to worsen, the United Nations reports that as many as 750,000 Somalis are at severe risk of death. An estimated 12 million people across the region are in need of immediate food aid, and millions in northern Kenya have been pushed into near-famine conditions.

Yet for much of the region, a lack of rains is hardly the only culprit of this crisis. In a recent interview with Reuters, the World Bank’s lead economist for Kenya Wolfgang Fengler said, “This crisis is manmade . . . Droughts have occurred over and again, but you need bad policymaking for that to lead to a famine.”

Despite 12% of the world’s arable land residing in Africa, a stunning 80% of it is not being utilised. Of the 20% in use, mostly by smallholder farmers who struggle to support their families with a hectare or less of land, only 4% is actually irrigated. The remaining 96% relies solely on the rains, which as the current situation makes apparent, are becoming more erratic, unpredictable, and unreliable.

While the African continent has been blessed with an abundance of arable land, decades of underinvestment in infrastructure, innovation, and regional integration has hampered efforts to profitably cultivate it, according to the latest book, The New Harvest, by Kenyan academic Calestous Juma, a Harvard professor and principle investigator of the Agricultural Innovation in Africa Project, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The New Harvest, examines Africa’s most glaring failures in achieving food security and tapping into the vast agricultural potential the continent still holds. While Mr Fengler may refer to the most recent famine as a “manmade problem,” Prof Juma’s book highlights the opportunities for manmade solutions, while challenging Africa to “feed itself in a generation”.

An “absence of investment in rural infrastructure,” and a failure of “high-level leadership to coordinate actors from government, business, academia and civil society,” said Prof Juma in an email interview, has failed to bring about the agricultural revolution that Africa needs.

According to Prof Juma, Africa faces three major opportunities that can help transform its agriculture to be a force for economic growth.

Technology, he claims, now offers the tools for Africa to promote more sustainable agriculture, most notably through biotechnology which can improve soil productivity, allow crops to grow in a wider range of environments, and produce nutrient-enriched crops. Despite the ongoing controversy over genetically modified crops, Prof Juma writes that “biotechnology has the potential to improve the nutritional value of crops, leading both to lower health care costs and higher economic performance (due to improved worker health)”.

Another central theme of the book is the creation and facilitation of Africa’s regional economic communities (RECs), which can provide new incentives for agricultural production and trade.

“The East African Community (EAC),” Prof. Juma says, “has been harmonising its agricultural strategies to provide a coherent approach. More importantly, the EAC has recognised the role of rural infrastructure. China and the African Development Bank are supporting some of the rural infrastructure needs but solutions will have to be sought from outside conventional financial arrangements.”

Lastly, Prof Juma encourages a new generation of African leaders to make agriculture central to long-term economic transformation. He points to the often-cited success of Malawi’s President Bingu wa Mutharika as a key example.

In 2005, five million Malawians were left in need of food aid after the country suffered from of decades of “low rainfall, nutrient-depleted soil, inadequate investment, failed privatisation policies, and deficient technology,” Prof Juma notes, leading to low productivity and high prices.

President wa Mutharika declared food security his top priority, investing tens of millions of dollars in a programme to import improved seeds and fertiliser for distribution to farmers at subsidised prices. Though it required significant investment and external partnerships, by 2007 the country recorded its highest maize surplus ever, slashing domestic prices in half and even opening up exports to neighbouring countries.

Africa can, in theory, “feed itself” in a generation, as The New Harvest argues, yet it will take more than just leadership and policy. It will require a change in mindset. As one of the most telling quotes in the book puts it, “agriculture needs to be viewed as a knowledge-based entrepreneurial activity.”

Young Africans can no longer afford to see farming as a last-ditch effort when all other opportunities fall through. Agriculture must be viewed as a profitable business opportunity for young entrepreneurs. Yet for that to happen, agriculture must actually be a profitable and steady business opportunity for young entrepreneurs. In many countries, there’s a long way to go.