Australia and Africa re-connected
Like Africa, Australia is a continent with abundant natural resources. But that is where the comparison ends. Over the years, Australia has developed and nurtured the relevant human capacity and infrastructure to tap these resources at home and elsewhere in the world for its economic development and improvement of human wellbeing. Australian agriculture has evolved from a few scattered settlers with hand diggers, horses and chainsaws to global agri-food value chains, supplying the world with consistent good quality, nutritious and safe food including cereal grains, meat, horticultural fresh produce, assorted processed food products and other high-value industrial biomaterials. Australian research and academic institutions are widely recognised for innovation in mechanised and precision agriculture, postharvest management, watershed management, dry land agriculture, breeding, and export-led innovation in value-adding, among other areas. The success of Australian agriculture and bio-based industries mirrors the tremendous success of its other land-based industries, including mining.
In comparison, agricultural development and productivity have remained largely stagnant in Africa over the past century. Despite rapid increases in population and rising rural to urban migration, the tools used in agricultural production in most of Africa have remained largely the same. Today in the 21st century, the majority of farmers in Africa, like their forebears, still rely on a combination of the hand hoe, cutlass and human muscle for nearly all agricultural operations, from bush clearing to planting, cultivation, harvesting and processing. High incidence of postharvest losses, poor produce quality, inconsistent supply and inadequate infrastructure that are often characteristic of subsistence agriculture exacerbate food insecurity and limit farmers’ access to both local and global markets. Due largely to bad leadership, investments in research and innovation and related human capacity development are grossly inadequate and often lacking in many African countries. With the new grand challenges of rising global temperatures, rapidly declining fresh water resources and increasing demand for quality, safe and cheap food to feed an increasing urban population, there is an urgent need to develop innovative and sustainable agricultural practices that would increase productivity per unit of resource with long term deleterious environmental impacts. Building partnerships for agricultural research and innovation, and promoting investments in commercial agriculture have become more critical than ever before.
The African renaissance
As Africa embarks on its ongoing renaissance, it must find and follow a new path to economic development that is resource-efficient, environmentally sustainable and economically viable. It must pursue sustainable and integrated economic growth, which tackles poverty and promotes trade. The challenges of climate change, greenhouse gas emissions, rapidly declining fossil fuel and fresh water resources, and the increasing understanding of the significant impacts of these phenomena on the future survival of life on our planet have heightened the search for sustainable economic development pathways. With the lessons learnt on the environmental consequences of the energy-intensive, chemical-dependent large-scale agricultural development that contributed in eliminating food insecurity in the industrialised world and averted the apocalyptic Malthusian theory, it is conceivable that Africa can lead and show the world the way for a truly sustainable agriculture in the 21st century.
Africa has vast amounts of hitherto uncultivated agricultural land and other natural resources to adequately feed itself and the rest of the world. The continent has 60% of the world’s total amount of uncultivated arable land, and the African economy is predicted to grow faster than China at an average rate of more than 7% over the next two decades. A major challenge for Africa is whether it can feed its over 1 billion people in 2015, sustainably? My answer is ‘yes, we can’! The caveat though is that this must be accomplished in a both resource and environmentally sustainable manner, and production agriculture must be viewed, pursued and supported as only half the battle.