"Ask ABI" QUESTION 4: How Can Africa Truly Capitalize On Its Agricultural Potential?

AUTHORED BY Beatrice Somanje, Daniel Mtombosola, Moses Kuthyola and Tawonga Mkandawire


The world’s population continues to grow at an unprecedented rate. Statistics predict that, by 2050, it is expected to increase by 50%, to 10 billion. However, it is striking to note that the agricultural sector is not growing at the same pace. Already, one out of nine people in the century we live in suffer from hunger, and the ratio continues to worsen as the global population grows. In 1990, three African farmers were feeding one urban dweller. However, by 2020, one African farmer will be expected to feed two urban dwellers. Thus, the question to the modern African farmer is, “what are you going to do differently to increase your production to meet the rising demand?”

Ralf Südhoff, head of the UN World Food Program, argued that the world is currently producing enough food to feed its whole population, but it fails to do so because of food wastage and inefficient food production – particularly in Africa. So, as an African business institute, we should ask ourselves what it is that the African farmer is doing wrong? What can he do better to maximize production? What can Africa do to become a global leader in agricultural production?

In many ways, Africa has great advantages which, if harnessed well, can help to grow its agricultural sector to make it the main food supplier to the entire world. For this to be achieved, however, it has to first closely research and incorporate the practices and technology that the agricultural leaders of the world today employ to maximize production. Next, it will have to look at the “nuggets of opportunity” that exist only on this continent that cannot be found anywhere else. Putting these two together, Africa can realistically grow its agricultural sector to match global standards, if go on to blaze new trails and set new standards for agricultural production.

First off, what can we learn from the US and EU’s successful agricultural systems? The main difference between western agricultural systems and their African counterparts is their extensive use of technology. Africa still predominantly depends on human labor to till the land, plant the seeds, weed the field, and harvest the crops.

In the last 10 years, sub-Saharan Africa’s GDP has grown by 60% and its middle class has expanded by 90%.  This is the fastest growth seen in any region in the world other than South Asia. The region’s economic growth has created strong demand for agricultural goods.

Three broad trends – changing (growing) demographics in Africa, rising income levels in especially southeast Africa, and rising global demand for food – are suggested as the main factors underlying the continent’s agricultural opportunities, should it systematically put its underutilized arable land to work. On the other hand, there are also risks that the African agricultural sector face, including effects of climate change, land degradation, low mechanization, weak policy and inadequate infrastructure. In 2003, African leaders in the Maputo Declaration agreed to pledge 10% of their budget to agriculture - but this target has largely been neglected by most countries that initially committed to it.

Arguably, Africa seems to have an advantage in becoming the best agricultural producer in the world.

Human Capital

As already discussed, Africa in general has massive human capital employed, usually generationally,  in the farming industry. Essential to the growth of the farming industry is the investment in labour quality and efficiency. Over 60% of Africa's population of 1.2 billion people are full-time, seasoned farmers. Given the right tools and information, Africa can be able to mass produce food at an unprecedented scale. 

It's Always Harvest Time in Africa

As the second-largest continent in the world that straddle the equator, Africa will always have winters, summers, wet seasons, dry seasons and monsoon season simultaneously across its continent. This means that Africa has weather conditions to plant or harvest most of its crop varieties at any time during the year. Furthermore, its diverse climates make it capable of producing almost any kind of crops demanded on the international market. In other words, the variation in the weather patterns across the continent gives Africa an advantage in the sheer variety of crops the continent can grow.

Climate affects all components of crop production (area, intensity and yield). Agricultural climate studies, however, have mainly focused on estimating the climate's impact on crop yields. Annual crop production, however, consists of two other components in addition to yield: harvested area (cropping area) and number of harvests per year (cropping intensity).

Arable Land Mass

According to an influential recent analysis, Africa has around 600 million hectares of uncultivated arable land, roughly SIXTY PERCENT of the global total. Further more, on the land that is being used, outdated technologies and techniques result in productivity being only a small fraction of what the continent can actually produce. However, according to Kanayo Nwanze, president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), Africa does not even need to tap into uncultivated land reserves to feed its people. All it needs to do is increase food production on land currently being farmed. The productivity on average is about 40% of the potential of the land.

Multiple Harvests Per Year

Another clear advantage that especially sub-Saharan Africa has is the fact that most of its arable surface area produces TWO to THREE harvests a year, depending on crop variety. Most of its agricultural counterparts, such as the US and EU and even China, have only one per year. As a result, the true agricultural output potential of Africa must be calculated as a function of its sheer arable land mass MULTIPLIED by two or even threefold. If the current agricultural giants in predominantly the northern hemisphere are able to feed themselves and even export enough to sustain the world's population today, just imagine what Africa could do if it found a way to truly capitalize on its agricultural potential. The opportunities are endless.