“In peace time or at war, the farmer defends the people from the worst enemy of all: Hunger.”
- African proverb
For most home-grown Africans, proverbs are an important part of the conversational repertoire, and an inroad into the psyche of our people. With agriculture, as with other matters that affect our everyday lives, African proverbs operate as tribal communication nodes that invariably impart wisdom for leadership and governance.
“The prosperity of a household is made evident by the food in its pots.”
It’s not rocket science; Africa needs to feed better. Farm productivity levels have grown only slowly with Africa lagging decades behind in quality and quantity of agricultural output, while overall population figures continue to rise on the continent. Graphs and PowerPoint slides tell us what tribal wisdom has been teaching us for generations: that food security is a function of the leaders’ commitment towards the welfare of the people; and the prosperity of the African continent cannot be secured without resolving key issues that plague the local farmer.
Policies aiming to protect the political and economic sovereignty of nations cannot be complete without specifically committing to promote the lot of farmers. Since the farmers of Sub-Saharan Africa are mostly not in organized, politically-vocal groups, they typically do not have the means to affect decisions in the corridors of power. There are of course, some farmers who are more equal than the others. Larger scale producers of high value export crops often get a place at the table because of the volumes they control. The average everyday smallholder is largely left out of the policy process. Hardly surprising then that despite global progress in crop science and agricultural technology, and given Africa’s huge expanse of large arable land; most small-to-medium-scale farms are in rural areas where access to transportation, high-tech storage facilities, and other infrastructural support is still inadequate or unavailable.
“Tend your farms, build your barns; your children and your pockets will be fuller for it.”
The people need available, affordable food, in sustainable quantities that promote self-sufficiency and protect the continent’s largely agrarian local economy. Recent spates of food-related protests in 2008 brought the world’s attention to Africa’s hunger problems which are finally decreasing, but only at a very slow pace. The people have raised a collective voice to decry government decision (and in some cases, indecision) on agriculture. Many African governments have failed to honour the Maputo Pledge, and commit to spend 10 percent of the public budget on agricultural development, food production and international trade. While the people have never been silent on the issue of food, it has taken media attention and public scrutiny to highlight fatal shortages brought on by high commodity prices, low land and labor productivity and food policy backlash across the African continent.
The main focus of international monetary policies has been to provide funding for national projects and ensure free (and fair?) trading among nations. The choice of projects, and the impact of those projects on everyday life, becomes another story altogether. International monetary policies focus more on currency values and finance, than on open trade policies with direct repercussions for the farming community. While prescriptive development policies have been recommended to many countries with successes recorded, there have also been epic failures where ‘unprepared’ markets have opened up to trade liberalization without providing a safety net for their local farmers. It is very easy to thus price the smallholder out of the market. From investing in the development of stronger rice strains with Dr. Monty Jones, to the lowering of rice tariffs in Haiti and introduction of cheaper, government-subsidized rice from the US market, fiscal policy and agricultural development are certainly conjoined. Africa cannot afford to adopt monetary policies that eventually cripple the local farming community.
Tribal wisdom points in the opposite direction of blindly-adopted policies and advocates prioritizing production and storage of food to protect the population from hunger and to generate income through-the-line from local farmer to national GDP. Tending our farms translates to giving priority to irrigation, agricultural research, soil/crop science and technology, and yes to roads, power, education, and healthcare as related areas of development. Even more importantly, there is a need to promote younger demographic interest in farming. To borrow a phrase from Professor Uma Lele, most young people do not perceive agriculture as a ‘sexy’ profession. African government policies and strategies need to also prioritize creative communication to make the industry more attractive to younger generation farmers.
“People and farmers are connected like eyes to the nose; whatever befalls one also affects the other.”
The people want farmers to produce enough food to feed the populace – and then some. On the other hand, to achieve this, farmers need the government to provide a growth-friendly environment with concrete actionable commitments towards protective legislation and fiscal policies, improved infrastructure, better access to funding, and provision of subsidies where necessary. Innovative management of Nigeria’s subsidized fertilizer program has resulted in incremental food production, online, real-time farmers’ audit with direct-to-user communication, and billions of dollars gained in private sector investments. It is clearly incumbent upon the leadership of African countries to ensure optimal food-governance; to safeguard livelihoods in agriculture and related industries; to protect food reserves and natural resources; to make adequate provision for future food needs; and to have contingency plans for unforeseen circumstances.
It makes one wonder that with all this tribal wisdom to draw upon, most African leaders are investing only about 5 percent of their public budgets in agricultural development. Why have African governments not invested more funds into much needed tech platforms that connect directly to the smallholder farmers? When will Africa’s agriculture focus enjoy the kind of commitment embodied by the Maputo Pledge?
From the pre-historic hunter-gatherers to today’s larger-scale operators, agriculture (and the need for food-security) has been at the core of human society, shaping the future of nations and building economies. Africa needs is a crop of ‘Joseph-Leaders’ to find a lasting solution to the ‘lean years’ that recur ever so often. Needing more than just a buffer against volatility; Africa’s basic productivity gains are just as important. The industry needs men and women whose vision for food security translates into medium-to-long-term strategies that save lives, feed nations, and enrich the populace organically.
There is a need to recognize on a very basic level that food is fuel for living; that African leaders would do better by listening to the voices of their people, guided by the intuitive wisdom of our forebears. African wisdom, like charity, surely begins at home.
Funke Michaels is an MIT Sloan Fellow, a Harvard Mason Fellow, and co-founder of the MIT Africa Investment Forum. She also spearheads marketing and strategic communication for innovation-focused organizations across 16 markets in West, East and Central Africa. <[email protected]>
Credits: Original paper on Global Food Policy written with the guidance and support of Professor Robert Paarlberg, Harvard Kennedy School of Government. October 28, 2014