African continent presents stark contrasts in socio-economic contexts. In these contexts are embedded contradictions and crises associated with development, wealth creation and well-being on a continental scale. In food production and consumption, the current realities remain worrisome. This is despite the enormous potential in agriculture that remains to be unlocked. With a landmass of about 30.37 million square kilometres (sq. km), Africa is three times the size of Europe. Yet, despite Africa’s rising population growth, its population density is estimated to be only 33 people per square kilometre, compared with 128 in Europe that currently experiences static to negative population growth and 307 in South Asia. The world average of 50 people per sq. km still remains far higher than Africa’s figure by about 30 per cent.
Notwithstanding the low population density, the challenge of feeding a population that is rising above 900 million remains enormous. Considering the future prospects of global population growth by two billion in the next 30 years (about 2050), it has been projected that half of that growth will be in Africa. It should be a cause for deep introspection, right economic policies and pragmatic programmes addressing the medium and long-term realities. But, for a continent that has the greatest share of people living in poverty, how is Africa expected to turn the tide in an uncertain future, with a reality of about 41 percent of its population living on less than $1 a day compared with 32 percent in South Asia and almost 10 percent in China?
With the right response at the right time, in the right place and by the right means, the global outlook on food production and consumption appears to favour Africa and places the continent at a good vantage point. Various pundits and analysts have estimated that Africa has between 25 and 65 percent of the world’s arable land. The percentage may or may not reflect the exact measure of what’s left for future food production, but it presents one unmistakable revelation, namely: that Africa has a huge advantage in feeding the future on a global scale.
While the supply of land could become inelastic in the future, a report of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) had it that “the percentage of arable land that is irrigated is barely 3.7 percent in Sub-Saharan Africa, a figure that rises to 7 percent in Africa as a whole given that 40 percent of the total irrigated area is in North Africa.” This explains, in part, the low agricultural productivity on a continental scale, in addition to causes such as poor-yielding crop varieties under cultivation, absence of fertiliser utilisation and perennial outbreak of pests and diseases. The same FAO report added that the corresponding percentages of irrigation for South America, East and south-east Asia and South Asia stand at 10 percent, 29 per cent and 41 percent respectively.
The classification of 16 percent of all soils in Africa as having low nutrient reserves, while Asia’s low nutrient soil is only four per cent is a cause for concern and proactive intervention. How can Africa move up from the 10 percent of global agricultural output it currently generates? How can the estimated 600 million hectares of uncultivated arable land revolutionise the continent’s future economy when, according to reports, out-dated technologies and techniques predominantly in use currently contribute to low productivity? A 2015 report published by the Montpellier Panel – an eminent group of agriculture, ecology and trade experts from Africa and Europe – emphasised that about 65 percent of Africa’s arable land is too damaged to sustain viable food production. So, what should be done to remedy the situation in readiness for the future demands?
Countries, regional and continental development agencies as well as global leaders need a convergence of thoughts to unlock Africa’s agricultural potential. Economic development to reduce poverty must therefore be considered one of the key priorities for the African continent. Africa must innovate across a broad spectrum of socio-economic activities that have direct and indirect bearing on agriculture. One of such innovations has to be in trade and transport; in aviation transport in particular. With the growing trend in globalisation, a robust, transparent supply chain in agriculture will boost Africa’s economy. But, for this to happen, Africa must overcome the existing barriers to intra-African trade, of which trans-border transportation is one.
According to a World Bank publication titled Open Skies for Africa: Implementing the Yamoussoukro Decision, “a large part of trade in Africa is undertaken at the local level. However, expanding economies aim at developing new markets, first at the regional level and then on a continent-wide basis. … trade in Africa was highly sensitive to transportation costs: a 10 per cent reduction in transport costs would increase trade by 25 per cent.
To benefit, stakeholders will need to leapfrog on some technologies that find application in the agricultural sector across the continent. One of them is aviation. It takes away the drudgery and time-consuming trans-border transactions. Open Skies revealed that “air cargo has become a key element of efficient, on-time delivery of many manufactured goods as well as a large range of perishables. Estimates indicate that about 40 per cent of the value of all interregional trade is transported by air. This translates on a global scale to 25 per cent of the value of all goods being transported by air, which corresponded in 2004 to a value of about US$1.75 trillion.” Opportunities therefore remain to be discovered in agricultural fresh produce export within Africa and beyond.
Africa can transform from heavy dependence on importation of food to one of heavy exports. The continent must embark on cost saving mechanisms such as Research and Development in a systematic manner. Infrastructure repair or rebuilding has become necessary where one earlier existed and new ones where none existed before. All over the continent, the ease of doing business needs an overhaul. Competition costs, purchasing power and consumers’ affordability, information dissemination and customers’ satisfaction need to be put into proper innovation context. New realities in technologies have shown that, just as Africa has leapfrogged post and telecommunication from landline telephone to mobile technology (GSM), it can do the same in electricity. The prospects of off-grid power generation and supply have been improved in the quest for renewable energy
The widespread use of solar power, wind power and bioenergy can improve the chances of Africa’s leapfrog from national grid sources of electricity to decentralised, demand driven, more reliable and environmentally friendly sources. The rise in urban population and the in demands for more food would warrant a closer look at some hitherto neglected production technology options in agriculture. A shift in emphasis from land to greenhouse agriculture (with greater productivities and more production cycles under controlled environment and better quality outputs), hydroponics and aeroponics, means that food production could be done within controlled environments and where there may be pressure on land in supply terms.
The use of modern ICT has taken us past the cumbersome and time-consuming postal system of some three decades ago to the now-ubiquitous e-mails, delivered at an instant and able to reach millions of recipients at once. Refrigeration is a component of agricultural trade that Africa needs to be well positioned for. With the rising prospects of off-grid electricity, a concomitant rise in the use of refrigeration will reduce the post-harvest food wastes within the continent significantly. Modern agronomic technologies of delayed ripening in fruits will create great incentives for fresh produce growers and exporters.
Policy makers, development partners, civil societies and NGOs involved in Africa’s development have roles to play in shaping the future of Africa’s food security and agricultural economy. They all have a role in ensuring that the right things are done to strategically position the continent in readiness for the looming threats to food security and imminent opportunities lurking around the corner as the future beckons. With the right policies, actions and coordination across national boundaries, using existing or emerging social and political structures, Africa should be a future leader in food security in a world of increasing population of consumers that need sustainable and assured means of supplies.