The agricultural sector dominates most sub-Saharan African (SSA) economies in terms of contribution to GDP, employment and income. The growth and development of this sub-sector is therefore essential for the overall process of socio-economic development in the region. The major challenge facing sub-Saharan African agriculture is to feed a population that is rapidly increasing. von Braun (2008) reported that to bailout Africa from the factors impeding its development, three complimentary policy actions must be taken. These are:
1) Promote pro-poor agricultural growth,
2) Reduce market volatility and
3) Expand social protection and child nutrition’.
It is obvious that agriculture and agro-processing has a role to play in policy actions 2 and 3. The bailout of Africa can be successful only if transformation of food and horticultural crops takes place. With half of the population living on less than $1 a day, achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) will be difficult unless SSA targets mainly the poor and have sustained economic growth of at least between 6-8 percent in the next decade. The number of people receiving World Food Programme (WFP) food aid in SSA doubled from 21.2 million in 1995 to over 43.04 million in 2005.
Many SSA poor depend on agriculture for a living and it is important that this sector is well funded to enable continuous growth. An assessment of Africa’s productivity potential indicates that only 10% of the land is prime land, 7% is of high potential and 28% is of medium to low potential. The remaining land (55%) is unsuitable for production and is considered to be fragile, easily degraded because of bad management, and in general not productive or does not respond well to soil amendments.
To improve food and nutrition security, the prevailing developmental view of SSA agriculture which focuses mainly on production must be expanded to include processing. The development of the agro-processing industry (Figure 1) is needed to improve fortification, nutrition and health through better diet. Furthermore, to harness the full potentials of agro-processing there must be a parallel growth of the other sub-sectors in the agribusiness system that includes the input, production, marketing and support subsystems for maximum profit.
The traditional view for most African countries is for the government to focus first on the agricultural sector in terms of policies, programs and resources and shifting its emphasis to the industrial sector later when the former has become more efficient. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) considers agro-processing as a subset of manufacturing that processes raw materials and intermediate products derived from the agricultural sector between harvesting and final use (Gallat 2007; FAO 1998). It is also a means to alleviate poverty and address food security. However, special attention must not only be given to policies (and their sustainability) that affect the prices of inputs and output to producers, processor and consumers, such as policies regarding taxation, subsidies, direct support and tariffs, in the short and the long term but also to policies that contribute to the creation of an environment suitable for business and investment growth. Access to appropriate technical processes, machinery and equipment, technical inputs and markets must be carefully developed and maintained. Furthermore, the "production chain" must be a continuum from the raw material producer through to the processor, distributor and buyer, with each link being strengthened and improved in the process through research and development (R&D) (Fig 1). Cooperation production chain and administration is a key component in the development of agro-processing. Furthermore enterprise and business must be at the heart of poverty eradication, not just aid, trade and debt (Shell Foundation, 2008).
Agro-processing could be defined as set of techno-economic activities carried out for conservation and handling of agricultural produce to make it usable as food, feed, fibre, fuel or industrial raw material. Hence, the scope of the agro-processing industry encompasses all operations from harvest till the material reaches the end user in the desired form, packaging, quantity, quality and price (Figure 1).
Another useful classification of agro-processing industry is based on upstream and downstream industries. Upstream industries are engaged in the initial processing of agricultural commodities. Examples are rice and flour milling, leather tanning, cotton ginning, oil pressing, saw milling and fish canning. Downstream industries undertake further manufacturing operations on intermediate products made from agricultural materials. Examples are bread, biscuit and noodle making, textile spinning and weaving, paper production, clothing and footwear manufacturing, and rubber manufactures. Agro-processing plays a number of vital roles beyond income generation. It can reduce the food insecurity of the 1.3 billion people who do not have enough to eat by reducing food losses, increasing the range of food products and making food safe to eat.
The development of agro-industries also has many beneficial feedback effects on agriculture itself. The most direct one is the stimulus it provides for increased agricultural production through market expansion. Indeed, the establishment of processing facilities is itself an essential first step towards stimulating both consumer demand for the processed product and as well as assuring adequate supply of the raw material. The provision of transport, power and other infrastructure required for agro-industries also benefits agricultural production. The development of these and other industries provides a more favourable atmosphere for technical progress and the acceptance of new ideas in farming itself.
Agro-processing operations (such as sun-drying) can preserve food for longer than its fresh shelf-life and can salvage waste food. For some basic food stuffs for example rice, it is essential before the food can be eaten it must be de-husked. It can help raise the nutritional values of poor people's diets and contributes to important cultural practices by providing foods with a more interesting taste than the daily staples. Today, however, it is becoming even more difficult to provide a precise demarcation of what should be considered an agro-industrial activity. The impact of innovation processes and new technologies suggests a widening of the range of agro-industry1 inputs that could be considered, including biotechnological and synthetic products. Corresponding to this growing complexity of inputs is an increasing range of transformation processes, characterized by physical and chemical alteration aimed at improving the marketability of raw materials according to the final end use. All these factors – the growing complexity of inputs, the impact of innovation processes and new technologies, the sophistication and the growing range of the transformation processes – makes it increasingly difficult to draw a clear distinction between what should be considered strictly industry in the broad sense and what can be classified as agro-industry.
By Omo Ohiokpehai (Food and Nutrition Specialist, CIAT-TSBF, c/o ICRAF, Kenya); Linus Opara (Research Professor & South African Chair in Postharvest Technology, Faculty of Agri-Sciences, University of Stellenbosch, South Africa); Henry Kinyua (Senior Business Manager, Horticulture, Technoserve, Kenya); Kiringai Kamau (Value Chain Analyst, VACID –Africa, Kenya) and Lusike A. Wasilwa (Assistant Director, Horticulture and Industrial Crops, Kenya Agricultural research Institute)