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Where is the African agricultural revolution?
Food Food General

Why did Asia manage to feed itself in the past thirty years, and Africa did not? And what lessons can we draw from this for the next thirty years? Five reasons why it does not want to succeed in agriculture in Africa.

Asian 'growth buoys' such as India, China, Vietnam and Indonesia have astounded the world for the past three decades. While the average income rose there and poverty and hunger dropped spectacularly, Africa practically stopped. From an exporting continent among the colonial occupiers, from 1980 onwards it became increasingly dependent on imports and food insecurity increased due to population growth, disinvestments and climate change.

What went wrong?

Why did not Africa experience an agrarian or 'green' agricultural revolution, such as Asia and Latin America? That question is keeping many people occupied, now that the world faces the challenge in 2050 is expected to feed 10 billion people. The largest population explosion is expected in Africa, which will then have more than 2 billion inhabitants, a doubling compared to today. At present, almost 800 million people in the world suffer from hunger, on average one out of every nine inhabitants. In the African countries south of the Sahara, no less than a quarter of the population are chronically malnourished. And that number is increasing because food production cannot keep up with population growth.

"How is it possible that Africa, a continent rich in fertile land, water and sunlight, has to import 35 billion dollars’ worth of food every year?" Akinwumi Adesina wrote in 2015 when he was appointed president of the African Development Bank (AFD). According to the former Minister of Agriculture of Nigeria, Africa should be able to feed itself in 2050. Without intervention, Africa will have to import 110 billion dollars a year in food because of the expected population growth in 2030. Food that Africa really has to produce itself.

Five reasons why it does not want to succeed in Africa and in Asia

1. Neo-liberal policies have put Africa back by decades

In the 1980s in the 1980s, African countries were heavily indebted to the World Bank and the IMF. At those financial institutions, the neoliberal idea prevailed that investment in agriculture was not necessary; import of food was cheaper, the continent could earn its money in the private sector with the export of high-quality industrial products. 'It was thought that you could immediately make the leap to industrialization and a service sector without first experiencing an agrarian revolution', says Dutch agricultural expert Rudy Rabbinge. This turned out to be a 'big error of assessment', which Africa has set decades behind, according to experts. 'No country in the world has evolved without it being an agricultural revolution.

They did not want to face the fact that local markets were being competed with cheap food from the West. '
Rabbinge, who is now retired, was involved as a university professor in sustainable development and food security at Wageningen University with numerous think tanks and advisory committees to raise the African agricultural sector to a higher level. In 2004, at the request of former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, he made the study Realizing the promise and potential of African agriculture, which formed the basis for Agra (Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa). This organization is now a cornerstone of current African agricultural policy and is being supported worldwide for billions of dollars.
Price support for agricultural products? We did not have any money for that, while the countries in Southeast Asia received ample funds.

2. Agriculture was not a popular investment

African leaders did not see much in agriculture in the eighties and nineties. That was something for poor poor people in the countryside, the future lay in the cities. As a result, there was little enthusiasm to invest in irrigation, technology, better seeds and manure or access to markets. Moreover, agriculture in Africa is mainly a matter for women, they produce food for the family on small pieces of land. If the women want to grow more in order to be able to sell some food, they run into numerous legal and financial obstacles. Because of the often prevalent traditional tribal power systems, women in Africa often do not have ownership documents, which means they rarely have access to loans for better seeds or agricultural machinery. This is a serious obstacle to the development of more productive agriculture.
Investments in agriculture were also made more difficult by the austerity discipline imposed by financial institutions on African countries. In exchange for tower-high loans, civil servants and institutions were cut back, the quality of education and care deteriorated. 'Agricultural research? There was no more money for it. We had to fire information officers throughout the country. Price support for agricultural products? We did not have any money for that, while the countries in Southeast Asia received large funds from the international community. "For example, AFD bank president Adesina, then Minister of Agriculture in Nigeria, was quoted in the publication A question of good farming; economic development in Africa and Southeast Asia compared to the Africa Study Center (ASC) in Leiden.
African boy with 2 oxes
Foto: ANP

3. No eye for technological innovation

In 1980 the population in Asia was even poorer than in Africa, now she is twice as prosperous. Around the 1980s, Asian countries began to invest an average of 10 percent of national income in their agricultural sector with a clear goal: to improve productivity. In contrast to Africa, governments acted as a steering force, investing in the improvement of irrigation systems, roads, agricultural engineering and subsidized seeds and fertilizer.

In some places, the yield per hectare doubled almost every decade. Indonesia was for example the largest rice importer in the world in the sixties, in 1984 it was self-sufficient, according to the study by the Africa Study Center.
Asia had learned lessons from the agricultural revolutions that Europe and the United States had undergone. At the end of the 19th century, the Netherlands already started to strengthen its own agricultural sector in response to the competition from the 'New World'. It invested in knowledge development of seed breeding, organized land consolidation and created stronger market positions by cooperating in cooperatives. The Indian agricultural expert Monkombu Swaminathan, who had studied in Wageningen, was one of the founders of the green revolution in Asia.
He worked with the 'father' of the agricultural revolution, the American agricultural expert Norman Borlaug. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 because he saw his vision on agriculture as 'the man who saved the world from hunger'. In the sixties he developed new wheat varieties that were better able to cope with diseases and had a higher yield. It laid the foundation for American commercial agricultural development. He then introduced his model in developing countries in South America and Asia, which sometimes saw their yields quadrupled.
In Africa this revolution has never been embraced or made possible. On average, African countries spent half to 1 percent of GNP on agriculture, ten to twenty times less than Asian countries. 'As long as you do not raise the productivity per hectare, there can not be any progress', says agricultural expert Rabbinge, who, for comparison, mentions some figures from the successful Dutch agricultural history. 'In the Middle Ages, farmers produced an average of 800 kilograms of wheat per hectare for about 600 hours of labor, compared with 1,900 kilos in 1900 against 300 hours of labor. In 2000, the Netherlands produced 9,000 kilos per  hctare - more than ten times as much - with only a minimal effort of 8 to 15 hours thanks to the mechanization. Now the Netherlands is the second agricultural exporter in the world.
African children learning in fron of a hut

4. Africa is suffering from colonial heritage

The colonization has drawn in-depth traces across the continents. Yet Asia managed to recover after independence and Africa did not. There are numerous reasons that explain these differences. One is the duration of the colonization period. Africa was much later colonized and also much later independent. It was not until the sixties that the first independence movements started, Zimbabwe did not completely free itself from the British in 1980. In many countries, conflicts still exist across national borders drawn by the European occupiers. Many ethnic groups that were played out against each other by Europeans for commercial and political purposes are still diametrically opposed.
Prolonged wars and bad or corrupt leadership have stood in the way of building up. African institutions and government have generally remained weak, which is partly explained by the colonial heritage.
For example, the British and Dutch made more use of existing institutions and local power structures, while the French and Belgians destroyed them earlier. Asia, for example, left roads, bridges, schools, hospitals and courts to age-long domination. Africa was left with almost empty hands and destroyed local power structures. Agricultural expert Rabbinge, on request, speaks of 'a lack of enlightened self-interest', especially among the French, Belgians and Portuguese, who hardly invested in sustainable development or transfer of administrative and technical knowledge to the local population.

5. Vicious circles are difficult to break

Wars, dictatorships or otherwise fragile situations do not attract investors. Without economic investments there will be no new jobs and poverty and hunger will prevail. Economic hopelessness and deprivation are often a source for internal conflicts and a breeding ground for radicalization. Especially on a continent with countless ethnic groups that still determine the balance of power. This vicious circle has halted development in many countries and is still doing so. In this way even the stable ¬Kenia is threatened again by tribally determined political conflict.
African agriculture is small-scale and very fragmented. Almost three-quarters of the basic food in the world comes from rice, grain and wheat - the largest commercial agricultural crops for which new and more climate-resistant varieties are being developed. In Africa, many tuberous plants such as cassava, carrots or sweet potatoes are grown on small fields, and then mainly for their own use. Soil fertility is often depleted due to a lack of artificial nutrients, which means that yield per hectare decreases rather than grows. The seeds of these crops are hardly developed or improved. African soils are also more 'odd' than Asian.
It is only since the beginning of the 21st century that the turnaround has taken place and in Africa the usefulness of agricultural investments is being seen. When the African Union was founded in 2003, the countries agreed to spend 10 percent of the national income on agriculture.
Due to the global food crisis in 2008, the realization of how risky it is to depend on imported food really started and countries started to work on that promise. Since then, countries such as Nigeria, Rwanda, Ethiopia and, for example, ¬ Senegal and Ghana have undergone a hopeful agricultural development.
Although few countries still get 10 percent, Africa is really catching up, says Ton Dietz, former director of the Africa Study Center and professor at Leiden University. "Agricultural production has risen considerably over the last fifteen years." Dietz also points out the potential of millions of cities for African agriculture. 'In Asia, the migration to the cities started much earlier. The demand for food from these cities gave agriculture in the nearby area a huge boost. You see that happening in Africa now. "
According to the African Development Bank, over the next ten years, $ 315-400 billion will be needed to put the neglected agricultural sector out of business. The bank itself has made 24 billion available for this, but China, the European Union, the UN, other donors and philanthropic institutions are also pumping billions in Africa in order to bring about an agricultural revolution.

By: Carlijne Vos
Photos: Studio V