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Is agricultural transformation the way to inclusive growth in Africa?

Fri, 2018-01-12 14:15
Rosebell Kagumire
Rosebell Kagumire

Rosebell Kagumire is a member of the Least Developed Countries Independent Expert Group.

What could inclusive growth look like in the next 15 years? And what will it take to actualize it? The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have raised those questions for African countries, and governments and civil society organizations throughout the continent are looking for answers.

Woman watering crops, Tanzania © Wikimedia commons

In September 2017 around 30 African development experts and policy makers got together in Monrovia, Liberia to deliberate on how the SDGs can make a difference for African development. The two-day retreat was organized by the Independent Research Forum (IRF) and the Government of Liberia and was the first of a series of IRF regional retreats being organized under the auspices of the High Level Group in support of the implementation of the 2030 Agenda. The Group consists of the leaders of nine countries including Liberia.

One of the main themes of the retreat was how to achieve growth that is socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable. Participants overwhelmingly agreed that agriculture must be at the heart of any growth strategy aimed at making poor people and communities productive economic actors, rather than perceiving them as passive welfare recipients. There was a strong consensus based on experience that investing smartly in agriculture can spur poverty-reducing rural growth. The vision of agricultural transformation that emerged from the retreat was built around increased value addition, import substitution, beefing up intra-regional trade, and overcoming the constraints faced by small holders and landless farmers.

Participants discussed some of the shortcomings of current agricultural development strategies in achieving inclusive growth. For example, in Tanzania we heard that inequitable trade relations have adversely affected already vulnerable people. Earlier this year, India, a major consumer of Tanzanian pigeon peas, banned their importation in order to encourage domestic production. That led to a price collapse in Tanzania that badly hurt small farmers. While developing agricultural export markets with powerful trade partners may generate growth, in order for that growth to be inclusive trade agreements need to be equitable, reliable and aimed at sustained and consistent trade.

The substitution of domestic crops by imports also has implications for Africa’s largely subsistence farming families and rural communities. Rice, a dietary staple in West Africa, is an example of an import that has squeezed out domestic production. Over the past 20 years, rice imports to the region have more than tripled, while domestic production has stagnated, leaving the region vulnerable to price volatility and shocks. According to a 2011 OECD report, the main impediments to competitiveness of local production are processing and marketing costs, coupled with low productivity. Overcoming these obstacles and building in effective incentives for domestic production could lead to greater sector resilience, job creation, improved incomes for small producers and reduced national economic leakage.

In Ghana, the government is implementing a 5-year programme, ‘Planting for Food and Jobs’, aimed at increasing productivity and food security. The program involves subsidized seed distribution, fertilizers, free agricultural extension services and support for agri-technology. It aims to equip small farmers with knowledge and skills to upgrade their agricultural practices in order to increase income while ensuring sound environmental management. However, we heard from a participant from Ghana that programme effectiveness has been challenged by an insufficient number of extension officers, highlighting the need to invest first in building internal capacity in order to effectively deliver capacity support on the ground.

The retreat highlighted the gender dimension of achieving inclusive growth in the agriculture sector. According to the FAO, women make up almost half of the overwhelmingly smallholder African agricultural labour force, an increase from about 45 percent in 1980. However, women remain largely unacknowledged as farmers by their own families, communities and governments and as a result have far less access to capital and secure land tenure than male farmers and so can only operate at a subsistence level. Women, and especially young women, are also often discriminated against in inheritance laws and customs

There is wide agreement that value addition is key to optimizing the contribution of agriculture to inclusive growth in Africa. Uganda offers an example of the role of gender in constraining the development of small agri-enterprises that could enhance rural economies. Uganda is has the highest percentage of entrepreneurs in the world, and women are more likely to start a business than men, according to the Mastercard Index of Women’s Entrepreneurship 2016. However, many of their enterprises are constrained by the difficulties women face in getting finance. A 2016 survey by the Aga Khan University found that at 62%, unemployment was highest among rural women in Uganda.

Retreat participants also emphasized the need to make the agriculture sector attractive to young people from rural areas, who now tend to look for employment opportunities in urban centres. In Senegal the Yeesal AgriHub platform, founded in 2016, is looking to bring more youth into agribusiness by emphasizing the entrepreneurial opportunities in modernizing the sector through new technologies and approaches. At Yeesal, young ICT experts team up with farmers to help them develop innovative solutions for the local needs of the community.

By considering what inclusive growth could look like in just one sector in Africa, the discussions at the retreat demonstrated how well the SDGs reflect, and can be used as a tool to frame analysis of, the complexities and inter-related nature of development. Issues that participants explored from the perspective of agricultures ranged from poverty eradication to technology development, gender equity, capacity development, environmental protection, youth empowerment, trade relations and more.

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