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Experts Discuss Agriculture in Africa: Is There a Path Out of Poverty?

Agriculture as ‘a key pathway out of poverty’ in Africa was the subject of a two-day workshop that illustrated the current status of farming in Africa’s tropical regions. The vast region known as Africa’s Guinea Savannah extends from western Senegal to southern Sudan and also covers a great part of Sub-Equatorial Africa, from east Angola to Mozambique. Despite its enormity, only 10 per cent of African Guinea Savannah’s 600 million hectares is currently committed to agricultural production.  The workshop, called Awakening Africa’s Sleeping Giant, was held at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) on the 22 and 23 of June and called upon experts from different fields to help lay down a road map for the awakening of Guinea Savannah’s agricultural potential. Run by the Future Agricultures Consortium and coordinated by Colin Poulton, of SOAS and a member of LIDC, the workshop followed the publication of a World Bank/Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) joint report on Africa’s Guinea Savannah, and offered an important forum for the discussion of its findings.
Opportunities for commercial agriculture
The workshop opened with an assessment of the general conditions of agricultural activity in Guinea Savannah. Hans Binswanger-Mkhize, Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and former World Bank senior advisor, compared Guinea Savannah to the successful agricultural plans developed in Brazil’s Serrado and in Northern Thailand during the last 30 years. According to Binswanger-Mkhize, Guinea Savannah “has far better conditions than Brazil and Thailand” for a thorough development of profitable commercial agriculture. He said  it is “much more difficult for African countries to become a major export promoter than import substitutor”. The increasing rate of demographic growth and rising incomes are at the root of the recent increase in domestic demands and expansion of trade diversification.
Small farming and domestic markets
Throughout the event small farming emerged as an appropriate solution for the development of commercial agriculture. Binswanger-Mkhize showed that even though “history in Africa is not encouraging”, product costs are considerably lower at farm level than other regions, and African producers are highly competitive in domestic markets. The expansion of a regional market is therefore a desirable process in Guinea Savannah, due to its extreme profitability in the short and mid-term. Even though logistic inefficiencies are an important obstacle towards the development of small entrepreneurship, small farming is particularly advantageous because it defies major burdens to agricultural productivity, such as the reservation of best land, diversion of subsidies and general systems of privileges.
Importance of sustainability
Many objections have been made on the mildly optimistic view proposed by Biswanger-Mkhize, questioning the social and environmental sustainability of Guinea Savannah’s agricultural development. Rory Post, of the National History Museum, and Bruce Lankford, of the University of East Anglia, respectively highlighted the risks entailed in the intensive exploitation of Guinea Savannah’s scarce water resources, and the dangers derived by the spreading of cattle and human diseases.
Moreover, many other fundamental questions remained unanswered. Low population density rates seem to discourage the expansion of small-scale farming in the region, which requires a sizeable workforce over large areas. Increase labour migration from neighboring countries was suggested, but other panellists warned this could further complicate the situation. Furthermore, the initial optimism was challenged by the difficulties in securing adequate financing, by the lack of local and general consensus on the project and by the limited horizons emerging from the discussion of related sociopolitical and environmental issues.
Cooperation and the private sector
In the concluding session, some panellists criticised the involvement of the World Bank for the volume and distribution of funding, and outlined the joint participation of different development banks as a key factor towards the awakening of Guinea Savannah’s latent potential. The desire to form an executive cabinet was also mentioned. The many questions raised throughout  the workshop and the points that remained unsolved underline the importance of an interdisciplinary approach that would take in consideration the complex pattern of economic, sociopolitical, health- and environment-related issues. Finally, particular relevance was given to the participation of private entrepreneurship.
By Davide Morandini, postgraduate student at the School of Oriental and African Studies, and a work experience placement student at LIDC