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2.4 African Potential

The vast potential of African agriculture is undisputed. As one of the continent's underutilized assets, it harbors the potential not only to feed the continent's population, but also to become its engine of economic growth and social development. Still, as the late Nobel laureate and supporter of the African Green Revolution Norman E. Borlaug used to say: “You can't eat potential.” It has to be tapped.

Land is a key issue. Theoretically, there is plenty of land available worldwide. But realistically, options are limited. In Africa, the potential expansion is more promising, in particular south of the Sahara and the Sahel, in the Guinea Savannah Zone, an area stretching across the continent from Guinea in the West toward Ethiopia in the East, and southward through Uganda to another belt across from Angola to Mozambique and Tanzania.[1] This is an area of about 600 million hectares, of which about 400 million is considered suitable for agriculture – and less than ten percent of it is cropped today. According to the Competitive Commercial Agriculture for Africa (CCAA) study, this is “one of the largest underused agricultural land reserves in the world.”[2]

The area is often likened to the Cerrado region of Brazil or the northeast region of Thailand, both of which are hailed as success stories of modern agriculture. Both regions started their agricultural transformation with limited perceived potential and poor infrastructure. Yet, with dedicated political support, technology application, and financial investments, both regions have become productive and highly competitive in world markets. They started with low-value commodities, and moved into higher-value products. Interestingly, in view of Africa's physical and social conditions that involve significant numbers of smallholder farmers, whereas Brazil achieved its market successes by relying on large-scale mechanized methods, smallholders dominate the sector in Thailand and it will be in finding a sustainable balanced solution to commercial agriculture in Africa, that successfully integrates smallholder farmers, that Africa will transition to a major food producing region.

In his book The Plundered Planet,[3] the influential development economist and

Director of the Center for the Study of African Economies at Oxford University, Professor Paul Collier, points to Brazil as a model of how food can be massproduced at scale. Drawing on these experiences, he argues that this model of large, high-productivity farms could “readily be followed in areas where land is underused,” citing Zambia as an example. This opinion is shared by the distinguished soil expert and Director of the Tropical Agriculture and the Rural Environment Program at the Earth Institute, Columbia University, Dr. Pedro A. Sánchez, who points to a belt across southern Africa, including Zambia as well as Mozambique and Tanzania, encompassing the area of the two agricultural growth corridors.[4] He calls it Africa's own Cerrado.[5]

For Africa to realize its agricultural potential, lessons can be drawn both from Brazil and Thailand. This includes the improvement of agricultural technologies, and government investments in rail and roads, as well as research and development. There must also be public support to develop a dynamic private sector, including commercialization of smallholder farmers at scale. Country case studies carried out by the CCAA study suggest that the prospects for commercial agriculture success, including involvement of smallholder farmers, in countries such as Mozambique, Nigeria, and Zambia, are as good as or even better than in Brazil and Thailand at the time of their agricultural revolutions.

At the same time, Africa needs to tailor any lessons learned, not least including those of the original Green Revolution of Asia and Latin America. Africa's own diverse challenges and unique conditions need to be addressed in a way that matches its political ambitions and growth demands with broader social and environmental sustainability concerns. This will mean potentially leapfrogging development steps observed in other countries to ensure the best results.

  • [1] This vast area is defined and described in the “Awakening Africa's Sleeping Giant” (2009) report, which looks into the prospects for commercial agriculture in this and adjoining areas.
  • [2] Ibid., p. 2.
  • [3] The 2010 The Plundered Planet is a follow-up on Collier's book The Bottom Billion (2007), which made him one of the most influential development economists, together with Jeffrey Sachs and his The End of Poverty (2005) and Common Wealth (2008) – both contributing to framing the global discourse on poverty and population, climate and development.
  • [4] Sánchez is a staunch supporter of the African Green Revolution and Yara's Africa program, a former member of the Yara Foundation board, and active participant of the AGR Conferences. He also served as a Co-Chair of the UN Millennium Project Task Force on Hunger, on which Yara as the only private sector actor was a member.
  • [5] Intervention by Sánchez at the AGR Seminar, hosted by Yara in Oslo, September 2009.
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