Reaping rewards: How to maximise business opportunities in African agriculture
A lecture and panel discussion led by Professor Calestous Juma (Harvard University), author of the acclaimed new book ‘The New Harvest: Agricultural Innovation in Africa’.
SOAS, 17 January 2011
Chair: Professor Jeff Waage, Director, LIDC
Keynote address by Professor Calestous Juma, Harvard University: Africa can feed itself in a generation
Professor Juma began by saying that his new book carries a very simple message: Africa can feed itself in a generation. This can happen provided that heads of states work together and the contribution of other sectors of the economy, beyond agriculture (for instance building roads), is properly recognised. The continent should leverage the scientific knowledge that is already available, drawing on the experience of its predecessors – countries that followed a similar development path.
Professor Juma emphasised that regional integration represents a real opportunity for African countries to specialise and trade among one another. The book is full of examples of how it is already happening in a range of countries.
The speaker challenged the notion of development as a transition from agriculture to services. On the contrary, a country can industrialise while developing agriculture. Indeed, according to the author, Africa’s industrialisation will be driven by agricultural development.
‘The New Harvest’ conveys a powerful message of hope; it illustrates what can happen and what is already happening on the continent.
Lord Sainsbury, Businessman and former Science Minister: Science can help increase agricultural productivity and thus contribute to poverty reduction
Lord Sainsbury applauded the two main messages of the book:
• Science can help increase agricultural productivity;
• Agricultural productivity is a powerful tool in reducing poverty.
The panellist argued that stagnation in African agriculture that can be observed over the last 30 years is a result of forced Washington Consenus policies that rest on a number of contentious assumptions: that governments have no role to play and that technology is freely available.
Secondly, lord Sainsbury expressed doubts about how much technological leapfrogging should happen in Africa, and argued that it should start with simple technology and a change in agricultural practice.
Thirdly, the panellist pointed out that no extension services exist in many countries. Organising these services properly would boost agricultural productivity.
Lastly, lord Sainsbury emphasised the pivotal enabling role that governments have to play in agricultural development, in addition to market forces. Governments can bring science and technology into agriculture, for which competent departments of agriculture are needed – something donors can advise on and facilitate.
Countess of Mar, Independent Peer and farmer: Europeans must stop telling African people what to do
Countess of Mar related to her experience of growing up on a farm in Kenya, where she witnesses early agricultural innovation, and then working as a farmer herself. She pointed out that Professor Juma’s book portrays Africa as a very diverse continent, for instance with respect to climatic conditions that have a significant impact on agriculture. The panellist agreed with Professor Juma that heads of state need to cooperate to advance agricultural development, although financial corruption often means that funds get diverted away from those who need them most. Roads are a necessary prerequisite indeed, equivalent to a blood system, making it possible for farmers to get stocks to the market.
Countess of Mar noted that European countries are all too eager to offer advice to their African counterparts, but in fact farmers should be shown by example from their own people, perhaps trained in the UK or US, what works and what doesn’t. For too many years outsiders have been telling Africa what to do.
Responding to earlier comments about gender imbalances in agriculture, Countess of Mar argued that it is crucial to persuade young African men that farming is a viable option for them and not just a low prestige occupation reserved for women.
Professor Juma is sending a timely and optimistic message
Professor Conway remarked that ‘The New Harvest’ goes well beyond what has already been written about agriculture in Africa. Its key strength lies in its two characteristics: it is timely and it is optimistic. Timely because we are experiencing a double-dip food price crisis, but also because a new generation of African leaders is committing 10% of their countries’ budgets to agriculture.
The book is optimistic, because many African countries are growing at an impressive pace, including in agricultural productivity. Ghana has already reduced extreme poverty, achieving one of the MDGs.
The panellist argued that, in order to increase agricultural productivity, Africa needs to invest in infrastructure, small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and higher education, which are often neglected by aid agencies. Technology transforms people’s lives, helping them reach sustainable incomes, and not just subsist. SMEs have a key role to play in agriculture, for instance seed companies or vegetable clusters. Much as primary education is key, it is essential to invest in higher education as well and build links with the private sector.
Professor Conway reiterated the message of the book that Africa ‘can do it’, with help from donor countries.
The panel discussion was followed by a lively exchange with the audience, which included academics and representatives from private sector companies and civil society organisations working in Africa.
Key issues raised in the discussion:
• How to get information to farmers, especially women: the role of extension services and higher education, ICTs, and satellite systems;
• Merits of small and large-scale agricultural production in the African context: while large-scale production can bring considerable income, it is small-scale farms that dominate in Africa and generate most food production; cooperatives can be part of the solution, as they group small farmers and offer them leverage;
• The issue of technological leapfrogging: it is difficult to process food stuffs in Africa due to insufficient safety and regulatory standards; leapfrogging has happened successfully in telecoms and could well happen in agriculture, if the basic infrastructure is in place;
• Innovation is often neglected in the context of African agriculture. What can the private sector do, what is the role of venture capital;
• The issue of land grabbing;
• The role in microfinance in providing access to credit facilities, especially for women: it has been very successful in some contexts, but it has limitations.