African farming must modernise and replace its ageing workforce if the continent is going to be able to feed its rising population, a report by leading economists has warned.
A transformation from small-scale subsistence farms to mechanised, more commercially viable farms is essential, said experts at the Ghana-based African Centre for Economic Transformation, who outlined a bold plan to revolutionise agriculture and fuel economic growth in a report launched Tuesday at an African finance ministers meeting at the World Bank and backed by former UN secretary general Kofi Annan.
Their recommendations are that governments increase the rights of female farmers and embrace modern technology, such as drones and satellites, and change land tenure systems, if the agricultural sector is going to be transformed to meet the needs of the continent’s population.
“With a uniquely diverse climate and more than half the world’s uncultivated arable land, Africa has the natural resources to drive a boom in agriculture that can lift millions out of poverty. But we have not yet created the right economic conditions. This excellent report shows how we can do that – and underlines why we must,” said Annan, Chair of the Africa Progress Panel.
The report aims to address the problem of Africa’s increasing dependence on food imported from outside the continent, which is now estimated at $68bn (£51bn) a year, and to address the urgent question of how the world will be able to feed itself with a growing population.
“We think agriculture can power Africa’s economic transformation,” said Yaw Ansu, the chief economist at Acet and the lead author of the report. “If we increase productivity on farms we immediately increase the incomes and livelihoods of about 60-70% of people. Also we can use agriculture to develop industry that will improve food security in urban areas and use it to make us competitive in terms of manufacturing.”
African agricultural industries have been hampered by multiple problems, including poor infrastructure, which makes transportation of goods difficult, the fact that large tracts of land are inaccessible due to ongoing conflicts, and a lack of irrigation, which means farming often stops in the dry season. According to the report, only 5.4% of agriculture across Africa is irrigated.
Farming in Africa still mostly takes place on small-scale subsistence farms, which are not large enough to make modern farming viable. About 85% of farms in Ghana are under two hectares, and in Uganda 58% are smaller than one hectare. Mechanisation levels in farms across Africa are very low, with the number of tractors in sub-Saharan Africa ranging from 1.3 per sq km in Rwanda to 43 per sq km in South Africa, compared with 128 per sq km in India and 116 per sq km in Brazil.
Yields could also be increased by embracing “green revolution” technologies – a combination of improved seeds, fertilisers, irrigation, mechanisation and farm management techniques – and using technology such as drones and satellite.
“Eighty percent of African farmers are smallholders and half of those are women. With more secure access to land, they can operate modern farms that produce more, and raise their incomes. These reforms could feed our people and fuel our economies, but we must act quickly.”
Agriculture has also been hampered by an ageing farming population. The report warns that the average age of farmers in Africa is estimated to be as high as 60 and there are few signs that young people, who are increasingly educated and unimpressed by the low incomes provided by most farming work, are looking to step in to take over family farms.
“If we can introduce a set of reforms and programmes of support and make farming a paying business, then hopefully we can get some younger, educated people into farming and create a new class of medium-scale, modern African farmers,” said Ansu.