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5 reasons why agriculture underperforms in Africa

3 September 2020

Africa has potential to feed the world with 60% of total uncultivated arable land available for agriculture. Yet Africa fails to feed itself. Even though more than 60% of the workforce is employed by agricultural sector, the continent relies on imports to meet basic needs such as grains ($15bn annually) and chickens (over 500kt per year).

#1 Agriculture does not appeal to the youth

According to The African Development Bank (AfDB), the average farmer in Africa is 60 years old. This has created the impression that agriculture is an occupation for the retired who also use outdated methods to produce just enough to feed their families but not to earn a living wage.

Agriculture is a noble way to earn a living in life, but it is not portrayed that way in Africa

This image has put off the youth who do not see agriculture as a professional occupation. Instead, they would rather move to urban areas in search of jobs than to stay in the village and suffer. This rural-to-urban migration adds pressure to over-populated cities and to a rise in youth unemployment as jobs are scarce. AfDB launched the ENABLE Youth programme in 2017 to tackle this issue of youth unemployment. Africa has 420m people aged between 15-35 who are 2-3 times more likely than older generations to be out of work. The programme is expected to create 300,000 agribusinesses and 15m jobs for the youth, over a five-year period.

#2 Lack of public investment in agriculture

According to the Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO), Africa had the second highest central government spend on agriculture in 2017 with 2.30% of total budget allocated compared to 1% spend in developed countries such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States. The biggest spenders between 2012-2016 were Malawi (16.4%), Ethiopia (9%) and Zambia (7.6%).

Most of this spend is on subsidies for farming inputs such as fertiliser rather than on creating the infrastructure needed for the commercialisation of the sector across the entire value chain. What is required is holistic agricultural policies with clear objectives, technical support, infrastructure and funding.

This holistic approach is what the European Union set out to achieve when they launched the Common Agricultural Policy in 1962, which has the following current objectives:

  • support farmers and improve agricultural productivity, ensuring a stable supply of affordable food;
  • safeguard European Union farmers to make a reasonable living;
  • help tackle climate change and the sustainable management of natural resources;
  • maintain rural areas and landscapes across the EU;
  • keep the rural economy alive by promoting jobs in farming, agri-foods industries and associated sectors

The EU spends over €58 billion per year on CAP or 39% of the total budget. The justification for this spend is that the agriculture sector impacts 450m people and is of strategic importance.

#3 Lack of financial support for agriculture

cocoa beans ghana
Ghana produces the highest quality of cocoa beans in the world

The agriculture sector lacks support on two fronts: credit and insurance. The 2016 Frontier issues research paper on Scaling up Agricultural Credit in Africa found that only 95 out of 900 banks surveyed in Sub-Saharan Africa provided funding to small scale farmers. The financial sector as a whole only met 3% of the total financing need of $450m.  One Acre Fund addresses part of this need by providing asset-based loans using a group liability scheme to over 1m farmers in Burundi, Kenya, Malawi, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda.

Agricultural insurance is even more challenging. Climate change has made weather patterns more unpredictable thus increasing the risk in a sector that is already high risk. Yet this heightened risk is precisely why insurance is not often available to small scale farmers. According to the Centre for Financial Inclusion at Accion, the value of premiums for agricultural insurance in Africa represents less than 0.7% of the world’s total. Government farm insurance programmes in Ghana, Kenya and Ethiopia have not delivered as expected due to marketing and logistical challenges as well as a lack of understanding of how insurance works.

#4 Lack of data-driven insights

Farmers have long relied on seasonal patterns and gut instinct to guide their activities. Agriculture in Africa is heavily dependent on rain as an input and this determines when the farming season starts. Farmers will then plant seeds and hope for the best. Climate change has rendered this approach ineffective as weather patterns are now more unpredictable.

Farmer's practice religion in agriculture by looking to the heavens instead of relying on data driven insights

Farmers need access to data to make more informed decisions. Given the increase in mobile phone ownership and mobile internet access across Africa, many farmers are now able to access the relevant and accurate data on their phones if they know what and where to look for it. For example, FAO’s Global Information and Early Warning System provides data on earth observation for crop monitoring, crop prospects, markets and trade, price and policy, supply and demand balance, vulnerability and risk.

#5 Agricultural productivity remains low

There are three main reasons why productivity in this sector is low:

  • Outdated tools: AfDB estimates that 75% of farmers prepare land using hand tools instead of modern tools such as trucks and drones
  • Incorrect seeds: soil analysis is not performed to ensure that the right seed is planted
  • Low fertiliser usage: Africa uses less than 10kg per hectare compared to the global average of 200kg per hectare. Farmers also use the same fertiliser for all crops even though the nutrient requirements for crops are different
  • Production losses of around 45% from mistakes made throughout the lifecycle: planting incorrect seeds, insufficient fertiliser used, manual harvesting methods, poor storage and incorrect transportation and handling enroute to market

Final word

Africa has a natural advantage to become the world’s leading agricultural producer but this is an opportunity the continent has failed to realise. It is unacceptable for Africa to be importing rice, sorghum, meat, chicken, spices, fruits and vegetables.

The change should start with consumers who can be sensitised via marketing and educational campaigns about the long-term impacts of relying on imports. Everyone in society has a role to play in order to fix this problem and build food security.


Strategy First LLC: Washington based consultancy supporting agriculture in Africa

M. Demba Ndiaye is the Founder and CEO of Strategy First LLC, a Washington DC-based consultancy providing advisory services to African farmers. Strategy First was launched in 2011 and its parent organisation, COMENGIP, has been working with community-based grassroots in Senegal since 1996. Their current work in Africa is focused on:

  • Scaling up development opportunities
  • Capacity on sound partnership agreements
  • Enabling conditions for regional cooperation
  • Stimulating youth & women focus in the areas of Agriculture, food security, and climate change resilience

© 2020 Muloongo Muchelemba. All Rights Reserved



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