GREAT lifetime of opportunities are about to be irretrievably missed in Africa if the continent crosses certain thresholds in the stewardship of natural resource management and exploitation. This will not be because such resources are exploited at all, but will be mainly because they are poorly managed, without adequate consideration for the future impacts of today’s actions. The costs and consequences will be too enormous to quantify. We will start with rural livelihoods and natural resource base. Although there are wide variations all across the continent in terms of abundance and diversity of resources, cultural differences and national governments, one common similarity is that all the countries are still climbing the ladder of development and the rural settings share a lot in common. Most of Africa’s countryside is agrarian and now – more than ever before – here lies a major problem.
The rural Africa is undergoing neglect from central planners, politicians, policy makers, policy implementers and enforcers. This condition persists, not because there are no diagnostic studies, research works or findings by development actors, or that there are no talks about the issues in official quarters, but in part because of lack of real understanding of the full implications of certain actions and inactions on the side of the governments and the people. Since all politics remain ultimately local, governance remains local and responses – highly dependent on both – remain a challenge depending on the existence or absence of relevant functional institutions. Thus far, much of the pertinent conversations are led, supported and implemented with the help of donor and development agencies, mostly coming from outside Africa. Without saying it loud, African nations appear to be living in denial of the unfolding realities within the continent. We thus gloss over obvious realities and ominous portents that need urgent and decisive actions.
The gap between policy makers, implementers and the public remains ever widening in Africa. This is discernible in the scant practical actions in spite of the number of conferences, proclamations and volumes of publications. The priority accorded such issues also remains low. Recently, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) raised alarm on the possibilities of environmental crisis in Africa. According to UNECA, “climate change has significant and unequivocal implications for Africa’s development, and poses complex and changing challenges for Africa’s peoples and policy makers. Addressing climate change has become central to the continent’s development agenda. It is proven that poorer countries and communities will suffer earliest and hardest from global warming because of weaker resilience and greater reliance on climate‐sensitive sectors like agriculture.”
UNECA warned further that climate variability lies behind much of the prevailing poverty, food insecurity, and weak economic growth in Africa today. It asserted that climate change will increase this variability, adding that the “severity and frequency of droughts, floods and storms will increase, leading to more water stress. Changes in agricultural, livestock and fisheries productivity will occur, and the continent will face further food insecurity as well as a spread of water‐related diseases, particularly in tropical areas. Temperature increases and changes in mean rainfall and evaporation are likely to become ever greater and more damaging to livelihoods through the 21st century.” It is important, at this juncture, to ask whether African leaders are modelling the scenarios for possible proactive intervention and preventive measures.
The question of livelihoods is thrown up here. While the increase in population in Africa over the years is widely acknowledged, there seems to be a scant consideration for the relationship between population growth, its spread and social stratification and the ultimate impacts on livelihoods and the environment. In some cases, as in Nigeria, population is regarded as a political tool, in which case it is manipulated and used to sway political outcomes of some part of the country over the others. Africa’s optimism must be based on facts, proven data and anecdotal evidences to guide policy directions. One of the September editions of The Economist magazine wrote on Africa’s population thus: “The 21st century, in one way at least, will be African. In 1990, Sub-Saharan Africa accounted for 16 per cent of the world’s births. Because African birth rates are so much higher than elsewhere, the proportion has risen to 27 per cent and is expected to hit 37 per cent in 2050. About a decade later, more babies will be born in Sub-Saharan Africa than in the whole of Asia, including India and China.” The Economist noted that, “the real problem is that too many babies sap economic development and make it harder to lift Africans out of poverty.”
We are often told of Africa’s population advantage as a big market for consumer goods. But we are not told of where such goods originate from, or how productive the consumer base is. Quite instructive is the fact that, in 1950, Sub-Saharan Africa had just 180 million people, the putative population of Nigeria today. By 2050, Africa will have a population of 2.2 billion people, three times as many as Europe. “Piecing together the poverty puzzle,” a World Bank report released earlier in October to mark the World Poverty Day, showed that the number of people living in extreme poverty in Africa has increased from 405.1 million in 2013 to 413.3 million in 2015. The mix of the poor and the growing number of rich people should not be allowed to becloud the population landscape and present a reason for false sense of security. There are confounding variables that need to be put into context.
A rising middle class, expanding population and stagnant local agricultural production are driving up Africa’s food imports. At the same time, weather-related damage, pest and diseases in crops and animals, and some agronomic practices – plus post-harvest losses – are affecting agricultural productivity. A 2012 publication of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), explaining Africa agricultural and food trade deficits, noted that, over the past three decades, agricultural productivity has fallen and, in the period, Africa lost its status as a net exporter of agricultural products in the early 1980s when prices of raw commodities fell and local production stagnated. Since then, agricultural imports have grown consistently faster than exports and by 2007 reached a high of $47 billion, yielding a deficit of $22bn. The value of agricultural exports from Thailand, which has less than 10 per cent of Sub-Saharan Africa’s population, is reckoned now to be greater than for the whole of Sub-Saharan Africa.
Africa’s rural economy deserves attention. The wide ramifications of rural development and livelihoods demand a shift from lip service and mere policy pronouncements to actions. As recommended by UNECA, the evolving global climate governance regime requires that Africa develop ever more nuanced and sophisticated responses to guide the continent’s engagement at all levels of the climate response. Ultimately, the future prosperity, wellbeing and food security of Africa will be inextricably linked to the level of today’s commitment to environmental stewardship. Without having to reinvent the wheel or begin from ground zero, there is a lot of policy, technical and intellectual resources Africa can draw upon to fashion out a more promising future on rural poverty reduction, sustainable livelihoods and increased food security, which – in essence – could mean reduction in Africa’s dependence on food imports.
Many African countries have fine-sounding policies, but very few act on them. This leaves countries in a quandary while poverty population continues to grow and people, particularly the resource-poor become more and more food-insecure. And, since poverty begets poverty, the only logical way forward if situations are not rectified is that of more poverty. World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim said: “But if we are going to end poverty by 2030, we need much more investment, particularly in building human capital, to help promote the inclusive growth it will take to reach the remaining poor. For their sake, we cannot fail.” Our responses, in form of actions or inactions, will determine whether the dark forecasts on poverty and food will turn out to be self-fulfilling prophecies or just effective warning posts to avoid catastrophe.