Dismiss the thought that the key to Africa’s financial well-being lies in oil or other standard bearers of economic prosperity. Agnes Kalibata looks to the future and sees smallholder farmers as the answer.
“Today, the countries that have depended so much on oil are suffering the most,” said Kalibata, the head of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, the continent’s largest agricultural non-governmental organization.
“We mine it and send it out. If we had used it to invest in agriculture, we would have seen much greater economic benefits. We can sell oil and make money, but we miss opportunities to invest in agriculture, which reaches the most numbers of people.”
Kalibata says greater investment in Africa’s farming sector is imperative and should take priority over economic drivers, such as oil.
A former minister for agriculture for Rwanda, Kalibata says that the $35 billion Africa spends on importing food from other countries would be better spent on farmers. She contends that if they were helped to become “agropreneurs,” they could efficiently replace many of the imported produce with domestically grown food.
In a conversation with The Times, Kalibata shared some of her views on the benefits of putting farmers first. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How can agriculture boost economic development in Africa?
Today we are talking about 70% of the people in sub-Saharan Africa who earn their income from agriculture. Because of that, agriculture ends up being between 25% and 40% of the gross domestic product of these countries. That’s an extremely significant figure.
And it’s not just that agriculture is contributing to GDP; it’s also the inclusivity of agriculture. The benefits are spread more evenly across society, particularly to the benefit of the poor. You are able to reach people in deeper ways in terms of reaching them with investments that can transform their lives, than you could do with any other sector.
Investment in agriculture is 11 times as effective in reducing poverty in sub-Saharan Africa compared with investment in other sectors. In other developing countries, it’s said to be about four times as effective.
Give us a success story.
The real success story has been that by really focusing on the role that agriculture plays in food security and nutrition, in the last 15 years, 22 countries have been able to cut hunger by half. Also the framework for agriculture that African countries have put together has enabled them to put their own investments into agriculture.
And for the first time, because of all these combined efforts, in the last 10 years, we have seen an upward trend in the output of African agriculture.
Also in some economies, including countries like Ethiopia, Burkina Faso and Rwanda, agriculture led to a reduction in poverty levels. But also it’s contributing to GDP growth and economic growth in these countries. They are some of the fastest growing on the continent, and agriculture is the No. 1 or No. 2 contributor to this growth.
So there is real evidence of success, and these are the stories we want to build on and show that agriculture is actually not a lost cause. It’s a very serious opportunity to grow African economies.
What specific policies are needed to help farmers?
Some of the things we really have to worry about are policies that would allow them to access the technologies that they need.
In this case, we’re talking about simple things like seeds and fertilizers. Policies that allow farmers to have access to seeds, policies that allow the private sector to set up businesses that deliver supplies to farmers and policies that allow markets and trade environments to function for farmers are going to be very critical for farmers to be able to produce more and reinvest in agriculture.
At the end of the day, agriculture is a private business. You can help [farmers] get the initial capital, but they should be able to continue investing in their businesses and grow their businesses. We want them to be able to make money, and the only way they can make that money is if there are policies to allow them to affordably access seeds and fertilizers and knowledge on when to plant and the markets that they need.
Sometimes they produce more than they need, and they don’t know where to put it so it goes to waste. We need to ensure that what they produce becomes a source of income as opposed to being a burden for them. It’s not rocket science.
What are some of the solutions to alleviating the impact of drought on African farmers?
There are several things that can be done right now. Again, using technologies, this time meaning the use of seed varieties that have the ability to survive drought because they have better genes, like we’re doing in Malawi.
We have some farmers [there] that have been growing potatoes and cassava and cow peas because they are more resistant to drought. These farmers tried to grow maize four times before they gave up. They’ve been able to plant these varieties of potatoes and have been able to get a crop, whereas farmers who insisted on planting maize have nothing.
The other thing is helping them access fertilizers so that the crops they grow are more resistant, and giving them the knowledge to be able to deal with the changes that are happening in the environment.
There are also other things we could do, such as working with other financial institutions to start looking at insurance mechanisms that can support farmers in these times, so that as countries are looking at how to adapt and how to move forward, we ensure that people are not starving.