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Africa should set its sights on feeding the world

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With the world population expected to swell by 2 billion people over the next three decades, Africa has an opportunity to step up and become a major global food production hub.

For the time being, Africa remains a net importer of food, despite its vast tracts of underutilised land and other enviable natural resources. Its reliance on food imports weighs on the continent’s current account and spells a missed economic opportunity. 

But with the right policies, technologies and infrastructure in place, Africa certainly has the potential to first meet its own food requirements, and then exceed them.

The economic opportunity is immense. The agricultural sector is possibly the continent’s biggest growth lever, and the potential for much-needed job creation is sizeable – particularly when considering that Africa is estimated to hold about 60% of the world’s uncultivated arable land.

And of the land that is cultivated, yields remain extremely low and irrigation techniques dated. 

The adoption of modern and innovative farming practices could spur a step change in the output of existing and new farmlands. The Netherlands, a country that is roughly 3.4% the size of South Africa by land area, provides a good example – being the world’s second largest exporter of food by value, despite its size, thanks to high yields.

Brazil, meanwhile, shows that it is possible for an emerging market to shift from a net importer of food to a net exporter. The South American country did so through trade liberalisation and investments in agricultural research, among other initiatives.

Much progress has been made in recent decades, but Africa is still only scratching the surface of its potential in the agribusiness game. To shift the industry onto a new trajectory, a combined effort between policymakers, financial services firms and the industry itself will be needed.

Financial services organisations should be considering how they can facilitate the sector’s growth by providing sustainable finance solutions across the entire value chain. Private-sector investments in areas such as logistics, renewable energy, warehousing and other storage facilities, agro-processing plants, and irrigation technologies will be crucial, as will public investments in road and rail infrastructure as well as ports. Access to markets is also an important focus area, and measures to tackle this issue will boost the entire agricultural value chain. 

As part of those efforts, Standard Bank is working with development finance institutions and export agencies to develop sustainable finance solutions specifically for the sector. We are also funding projects that allow small-scale farmers to transform themselves into outgrowers that supply commercial farmers. Policymakers can play their part by creating an enabling investment environment, as countries such as Kenya have done. Tariffs should be made cost-reflective, for instance, and policy certainty needs to be the order of the day. 

To align policies across the continent, governments should consider existing frameworks. The second Sustainable Development Goal, for instance, is the eradication of hunger, while the African Union’s Agenda 2063 outlines a continental framework for agriculture – the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme – whose goal is to end hunger and double agricultural productivity.

Encouragingly, the imminent implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) will lower tariffs and promote intra-African trade in agriculture, making the continent less reliant on food imports from other regions. And through cross-border initiatives, Africa could strengthen its food export prospects.

African states and farming groups would also do well to adopt ‘smart farming’ concepts. Standard Bank, for instance, in partnership with technology companies, has piloted projects that use drones to monitor the health of crops, and digital technologies to monitor and regulate soil moisture in order to save water by avoiding unnecessary irrigation.

Meanwhile, regulations should be aimed at striking a balance between economic growth and safeguarding Africa’s natural environment.

Climate change poses a serious risk to Africa’s food security – and the world’s. The effects are already being felt – Tropical Cyclone Idai caused unprecedented damage in Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi less than a year ago, while catastrophic droughts and flooding have affected South Africa and East Africa, among other regions. Currently, the devastating locust invasion in East Africa – Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia specifically – is threatening food security in the region. 

Considering that agriculture already accounts for a large portion of Africa’s GDP, the impact of climate change on the economy can be severe.

Another risk is that the expansion of Africa’s agricultural sector will place more strain on the continent’s water resources, which need to be carefully managed. The adoption of advanced irrigation techniques is a good start.

To play its part and to promote gender equality, Standard Bank recently partnered with United Nations (UN) Women on a project aimed at developing climate-smart farming techniques amongst rural women. The initiative is being rolled out in Uganda, South Africa, Malawi and Nigeria. 

While the sector’s future is not without its risks, it may well be Africa’s biggest opportunity over coming decades. Being a major contributor to GDP and employment, the sector is the continent’s most effective lever for achieving inclusive growth.

Sola David-Borha is the Chief Executive of Africa Regions at Standard Bank Group.


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