Agriculture in Africa is highly regarded as the backbone of the economy. It not only plays a crucial role in providing food but is also a source of employment and raw materials for other economic activities. Indeed the agricultural sector accounts for about 60% of the total labour force, 20% of total merchandise exports and 17% of GDP. African countries have policies emphasizing high agricultural production but the potential of most small scale farmers still remains at the subsistence level hence their continued vulnerability to prolonged hunger and famine. Africa is most often the subject of food aid and import. Imports of agricultural products have been rising faster than exports making the continent a net agricultural importing region since 1980. Import dependency is higher in the cereal sector than for root crops and other starchy staples. Developed countries over produce due to subsidies and more often dump the same in Africa.
The continent’s agricultural situation has been largely pegged on erratic rainfall. The food supply and entitlement crisis of 1972 and 1984-1985 in the Sahel and the Horn, the southern Africa drought of 1992 and the Mozambique floods of 2000 are good illustrations of this phenomenon. Africa still suffers from the high cost of doing business by pursuing protectionist policies against fellow African states. In 1997, agricultural exports from SSA countries encountered an average tariff of 33.6% in other SSA countries. East Asian exports to SSA were hit by a 19% tariff whereas European exports encountered a tariff of 12.7%. SSA tariffs against fellow SSA countries were thus substantially higher than against any other regional group in the world. Africa’s agriculture has been starved of investment for long. Other challenges facing Africa’s agriculture include: poor and un-remunerative external markets; limited access to technology and low human capacity to adopt new skills; low levels of past investments in rural infrastructure; and institutional weaknesses for service provision to the entire agricultural chain from farms to markets. These have resulted in a less productive, uncompetitive and declining sector. Majority of those who bear the brunt of these challenges are the small scale farmers who are the majority.
In most regions of the world, increased agricultural production has been obtained by intensifying production and increasing yields. Increases in food production in Africa are a precondition to the continents food security. Improved Agricultural production also has potential to increase rural incomes and purchasing power for large numbers of people. With greater prosperity, the consequent higher effective demand for African industrial and other goods would be a significant source of economic growth. Agricultural growth and development is thus crucial for any country’s overall economic and social development. Indeed there is a direct and positive relationship between growth in the agricultural sector and that of the entire economy. Ideally when the agricultural sector performs well, the economy should improve. The challenge is to put the right institutions and policies in place, nationally and internationally.
Low resource farmers in Eastern Kenya face a myriad of problems, which contribute to frequent food shortage. Top among them being unreliable rainfall, lack of adequate finance, pests and diseases among others. In spite of these challenges, the low resource farmers strongly suggest that they can produce surplus and thereby not rely on relief food only if they are supported for instance through irrigation. By linking up with relevant stakeholders with the aim of promoting commercial farming, food insecurity and poverty among them can be a thing of the past.
As a way forward for food security and poverty alleviation, there is need to support commercial private sector operations and commercial farming among the small-scale farmers who form the bulk of the population. The government should provide a conducive environment for farmers to take their own initiatives and operate profitably on a sustainable basis. Mobilization of public funds to develop irrigation systems and growth of drought resistant crops is crucial. The small-scale farmers must be exposed to technologies that will increase their acreage as well as improve their productivity and quality of produce.