Africa: A Sleeping Agricultural Giant?

Published on 23rd June 2009

Africa could be a global player in bulk commodities such as rice and cotton. A vast stretch of African savannah land that spreads across 25 countries has the potential to turn several African nations into global players in bulk commodity production, according to a study just published by FAO and the World Bank. 


The book, entitled Awakening Africa’s Sleeping Giant - Prospects for Commercial Agriculture in the Guinea Savannah Zone and Beyond, arrives at its positive conclusions by comparing the region with northeast Thailand and the Cerrado region of Brazil.


A wheat field in Brazil        Photo:courtesy
At the moment, only ten percent of the Guinea Savannah zone, a vast area of around 600 million hectares of land from Senegal to South Africa, with 400 million hectares suitable for farming, is actually cropped.


Physically challenged


The Cerrado and northeast Thailand, like the Guinea Savannah both had physical disadvantages; abundant but unreliable rainfall patterns, poor soils and a high population density in the case of Thailand; and remoteness, soils prone to acidity and toxicity and low population in the case of the Cerrado. 


In both countries, successive governments created the conditions for agricultural growth “characterized by favourable macroeconomic policies, adequate infrastructure, a strong human capital base, competent government administration, and political stability,” according to the publication. 


Indeed, Africa is better placed today to achieve rapid development in agriculture than either northeast Thailand or the Cerrado when their agricultural transformation took off in 1980, the study argues. 


There are a number of reasons for this: rapid economic, population and urban growth providing diverse and ample domestic markets; favourable domestic policy environments, improved business climates in many countries; increased foreign and domestic investment in agriculture; and the use of new technologies. 


Small farmer growth


If development is to be equitable and social conflict is to be avoided, then a smallholder-led agricultural transformation such as the one undergone by Thailand is a better model than that which happened in Brazil with large-scale farming led by wealthy farmers, the study finds. 


“Commercial agriculture in Africa can and should involve smallholders to maximize growth and spread benefits widely,” said Michael Morris, Lead Agricultural Economist with the World Bank in Madagascar.


“Large-scale mechanized production does not offer any obvious cost advantages, except under certain very specific circumstances and is far more likely to lead to social conflict,” he said.


The experience of Thailand and Brazil shows that when smallholder farmers are involved in development, then poverty reduction is greater and local demand stimulated.


In the case of low-value staples however, it is unlikely that land-constrained households farming 1-2 hectares or less will be able to earn sufficient income to exit poverty. The emerging pattern of commercial agriculture in the African Guinea Savannah therefore must provide diversification opportunities for producers of low-staples, the publication argues.


Environmental costs


Changing the use of land in the Guinea Savannah to agriculture will inevitably bring some environmental costs, the study found, but that agriculture can also benefit the environment.


 “Commercialization of agriculture through intensification can reduce environmental damage by slowing the spread of agriculture into fragile and/or environmentally valuable lands,” said Morris. 


“However intensification brings with it risks of environmental damage through destruction of vulnerable ecosystems and the excessive use of fertilizers and pesticides.”


As agricultural intensification takes place, governments must take care to monitor environmental impacts and implement measures to reduce or avoid damage. “Fortunately, there is a wealth of experience from other countries on which to draw,” said Guy Evers, Africa Service Chief in the FAO Investment Centre.


The publication is a shortened version of a larger study drawn up by officials from the World Bank with technical advice from FAO experts and funding from Italy.   


From FAO Newsroom

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