Farming Is Africa’s Best Bet for Jobs

Cereal yields in Africa are less than 50 percent of those in Asia or South America. FAO estimates that one in five Africans is undernourished. Malnutrition, as measured by stunting affects nearly 40 percent of children in Africa. Moreover, Africa will need to feed an additional 900 million people by 2050.

Agriculture supports the livelihoods of 80 percent of the African population, provides employment for about 75 percent but contributes less than 15 percent of GDP. For Africa, sustainable and equitable growth is inextricably bound to agriculture. Africa’s ubiquitous poverty and economic decline becomes easily explicable when you take into account the dire state of agriculture.

Hunger, malnutrition, disease and poverty present formidable barriers to Africa’s productivity, growth and prosperity. According to President Museveni, malnutrition impairs educational achievements, undermines economic productivity and places a huge burden on Uganda’s fragile public health system. The African Development Bank (AfDB) recognizes that Agriculture is vital to promoting growth and reducing poverty in Africa.

As an African scholar and public intellectual, I am scandalized and my pride is deeply wounded by the unending specter of hunger and malnutrition. It is shameful, beyond measure or pardon, that fifty years with Africans at the helm, little progress has been made to guarantee every African child sufficient and nutritious food. I am sure there is enough blame to go round; the UN system and the multi-billion dollar international aid honchos are not innocent.

But, ultimately, the burden of responsibility must rest with people like me, Africa’s intellectual elite. Stagnation of agriculture has been the defining feature of Africa’s economic policy over the last four decades. Spending in agricultural research and development by African countries declined by 27 percent between 1981 and 2000. Conversely, spending in agricultural research and development rose by 30 percent in rest of the developing world; Asia and Latin America.

Egged by experts the African Union, through the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP), has set a growth target of 6% per annum for agriculture and encourages every country to allocate 10 percent of the national budget to agriculture. CAADP called for $251 billion to fund investments in irrigation, infrastructure, education and markets. Today, less than handful countries allocate 10 percent of their national budget to agriculture and critical investments in agricultural research and development lag behind other developing regions.

ike all areas, which are critical to Africa’s development, such as education, energy, biodiversity conservation and the extractive sector, experts have besieged agriculture. Africa is drowning in advisors. Invariably, the overabundance of external advisors diminishes the cachet of local experts. As Bill Easterly argues in his new book, The Tyranny of Experts: Economist, Dictators and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor, the appeal of technocratic ideas persists beyond overt racism and colonialism.

Africa has been through a multitude of expert-led technical solutions but hunger still persists. Evidently, agriculture is not a vaccine. You cannot have a breakthrough in Boston and roll it out in Vihiga. Ultimately, African universities and national research systems must engage, define the problems and offer appropriate solutions. But one fundamental question remains, can African scholars or their institutions deliver the research and development breakthroughs that have eluded agriculture for more than half a century? And is government and private sector ready to put their money where their mouth is?

Africa has a large and growing population of young people. Where will young Africans currently entering the labor force find employment? Africa has the lion’s share of the world’s arable land. Agriculture is uniquely positioned to absorb this young and dynamic workforce. Africa’s youth dividend will not be credited automatically into the national treasury. We can harness the youth dividend by accelerating the transformative change in agriculture.

African governments and their expert advisors must wake up. There is no such thing as a dual economy in which agriculture is a passive actor – a low productivity supplier of food and a subordinate driver of national growth and economic transformation. Agriculture is the real driver of Africa’s economic growth. There will be no transition to China-style labor-intensive manufacturing until agriculture is productive, efficient and profitable.

Our path to middle income and economic prosperity must be different. Africa must shun technical advisors external beholden to the antiquated linear growth models – from hunter-gatherer to agrarian to industrial to service and knowledge. Our research and academic community must re-imagine our unique path to prosperity.

Dr. Awiti is the director of the East Africa Institute and assistant professor at Aga Khan University.

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