Analysis & Opinions - New Agriculturalist

Africa—From Basket Case to Breadbasket

| February 2011

Calestous Juma, Professor of the Practice of International Development and Director of the Agricultural Innovation Project at Harvard Kennedy School, is optimistic about economic prospects in his native continent of Africa. In his new book, The New Harvest: Agricultural Innovation in Africa, launched in January 2011, he states very clearly that Africa is a continent that can feed itself within a generation. For readers of New Agriculturist he outlines why, despite the challenges of ever increasing population and climate change, he thinks Africa will change its image of being a basket case to becoming a breadbasket.

The basis for my optimism is the reality on the ground and knowledge of the rapid rate at which Africa is changing. One concrete example is the investment that Africa is making in economic transformation. Take infrastructure for example: a significant effort is being made by African countries to extend road networks, the lack of which has been the biggest barrier to agricultural production, especially connecting markets to farms. Similar investments are being made in energy and irrigation. Only seven per cent of African agriculture is irrigated — 3.6 per cent in sub-Saharan Africa — compared to about 47 per cent in south Asia; this is changing. The impact of telecommunications has served as an important source of inspiration and evidence of the role of infrastructure in development. Mobile phones are helping farmers to know when to plant, where to sell and where to bank. Mobile technology is also becoming a substitute for traditional extension services. The next wave of broadband technology will be even more transformative and will affect all sectors of the economy. Agriculture will be a key beneficiary of the terrestrial cables that are being laid across the continent. Innovation in agriculture now includes the use of genetically-modified crops that have been adopted in South Africa, Burkina Faso and Egypt. Other countries such as Kenya and Tanzania are planning to follow suit. But Africa will go further in using all methods, including organic farming, as well as alternative crops such as breadfruit that help meet food needs while providing vegetation cover. Sustainable agriculture can take root in Africa.

The second fact that reinforces my optimism is the creation of regional markets. In the past each African country has struggled by itself. And, if it did not have sufficient lands and sufficient investment, it would rely on foreign food aid. Now countries and regional bodies like COMESA (Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa) are starting to trade among themselves and a large part of this trade is in food. The East African Community (Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi) has committed itself to a regional approach to agriculture.

The third reason for my confidence in Africa is the increase in examples of countries that have turned their agriculture around in very few years. Rwanda's recovery after the genocide focused remarkably on agricultural restoration. Malawi is a more well-known example of rapid agricultural recovery. In both cases presidential leadership was critical to rapid recovery. More African presidents are starting to pay attention to the fact that in Africa agriculture and the economy are one and the same.

As highlighted in TheNew Harvest, Africa is also actively learning from the experiences of other agricultural giants such as China, Brazil and India. But more importantly, it is also learning from itself. African presidents meet more regularly than in any other region of the world. They learn a great deal from each other and are starting to draw on their own experts openly.

In looking ahead, attention will need to focus on building technical capacity in agriculture, especially for women. There is no alternative to decentralizing institutions of higher learning and linking them directly to farming communities. The African Rural University for Women (ARU) project in western Uganda is an example of what needs to be done. ARU started off as a project of a non-governmental organization training young women: it is now seeking to become a full university. When African women farmers raise their productivity and become technology-oriented, their children will also have a better appreciation for the role of innovation to create a new generation of young people that are interested in using innovation to improve their living conditions.

Universities are just one option to build technical competence. Another is adding a vocational component to high schools located in agricultural areas. This will make education more relevant to young people. Today, the creativity of young people is not fully tapped: such a youthful continent needs a different type of education. In large parts of Africa the majority of the population are of school age. Vocational schools can help to build competence in areas such as food processing. Up to 40 per cent of the food produced in Africa is wasted through post-harvest loss. Improvements are needed in processing, storage and transportation. International aid agencies could play a key role in funding the purchase of equipment needed to turn high schools into vocational centres.

Some sceptics argue that any gains that are made in agricultural production will be eroded by climate change. To the contrary, much of the interest among African leaders to focus on agriculture is inspired by their concern over climate. They reason that making agriculture more resilient is the best way to adapt to climate change. It is for this reason that President Jakawa Kikwete of Tanzania convened a retreat of East African presidents last December to discuss 'Food Security and Climate Change'. It was at this event that The New Harvest was launched. It was clear from the discussions at the retreat that African leaders are not interested in predicting the future; they are determined to define it.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Juma, Calestous.“Africa—From Basket Case to Breadbasket.” New Agriculturalist, February 2011.

The Author

Calestous Juma