Geldof and Obasanjo on creating a better harvest for African agriculture

Africa is one of the most fertile regions on earth. Yet, while the continent boasts 60% of the world’s uncultivated arable land, one in four Africans still go hungry and Africa still imports 40% of the food it needs.

Former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo

Former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo

While recent developments in African agriculture show tremendous promise, the continent still lacks viable ways of channelling investment money to the millions of dynamic entrepreneurs with viable business ideas in sectors such as farming, aquaculture and agro-processing. Indeed, Africa is losing huge potential investments each year. This loss has effects for jobs and economic growth.

These are a few key changes necessary to make this possible.

1. Attract greater investment

Over the past decade, Africa has harboured some of the fastest growing economies in the world, to a large extent linked to oil, gas and mining. Growth like that draws investors looking for further opportunities and the challenge is to remove the obstacles that prevent this investment money from reaching the continent.

African agriculture has an abundance of investment opportunities: in equipment, transport, irrigation and infrastructure; investment for farmers to go from subsistence to commercial farming; and investment in training, research and support for smallholders as well as small and medium enterprises. Such investments could deliver manifold returns; for the investors, yes, but also in terms of jobs, food security and better incomes for small farmers.

2. Reduce the cost of money

For local investment in agriculture to flourish, it is crucial that the cost of borrowing money be reduced. Real interest rates on loans to agricultural projects (and to small shops and industry ventures, for that matter) exceed 20% in many African countries. No business can thrive if it has to borrow at those rates. It should be possible to access capital well below 10% – even in so-called frontier markets – if we simplify banking, reduce perceptions of risk and introduce functioning insurance.

Venture capital and equity must be made more available. Financing from international and regional financial institutions could be put to good use by guaranteeing and underwriting equity investors who invest in small enterprises. And we need to make Africa’s stock markets more accessible to both small and international actors.

3. Strengthen appropriate governmental regulation

Should governments just “get out of the way” and let the private sector sort these questions out by itself? Absolutely not. If the past five years of global crisis have taught us anything, it is that markets work best when they are well regulated for the benefit of society.

Governments need to ensure, for example, that smallholder farmers – especially women – can access new sources of credit and equity, and that they are not squeezed out by large agribusiness. Governments can encourage the creation of cooperatives, provide technical support and training, help with the development of new seed varieties, invest in roads and water systems, and protect against predatory investors.

Farmers also need well-regulated commodity exchanges so they can sell their products at global market rates, rather than to monopoly buyers who squeeze the prices.

4. Strike a balance between big and small businesses

Africa needs large, commercial farms as well as small ones. But it doesn’t need foreign investors who appropriate land and water to supply food and bio-fuels to other countries, while creating few jobs and driving populations from their homes. Only strong and principled policies by responsible governments can ensure the right balance between large and small, foreign and local.

Such a balance is already being struck in some countries. Nigeria’s agriculture minister has launched an ambitious plan to add 20m metric tons of food to the domestic supply, while creating 3.5m new jobs. In the first year of its transformation push, Nigeria reached over 75% of its job creation target and has met the first Millennium Development Goal, cutting hunger by half, three years ahead of schedule.

Other countries are making similar strides. Such success stories exist all over Africa. If we scale these up, the continent can rid itself of hunger within a decade, create jobs and generate growth for both within and far beyond.

The Africa Progress Panel, chaired by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, will this year explore ways of meeting this challenge. Its 2014 report will focus on how African farmers and fishing communities can access the money they need to create green and blue revolutions in Africa.