Why the U.S. needs to focus on developing agriculture in Africa

By Marshall Matz

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

In the next five years, seven of the top ten fastest growing economies will be in Africa, according to a study done by The Economist. The average African economy can be expected to expand faster than the average Asian economy.

The White House has signaled that President Obama will focus more on Africa this year, and the timing could not be better for both Africa and the United States. Africa is young - with several countries having just turned 50 years old. (Let us not forget that our United States Civil War occurred 70 years after our Revolution). While the 47 countries of sub-Saharan Africa are all developing at a different pace, there is a sophisticated, new generation of leadership working on the ground in Africa.

As the administration moves forward and works closer with Africa, agriculture development should be the highest priority. Most Africans are farmers, and most of the farmers are women struggling to provide sufficient food for their children. The African Union (AU) is calling for a major effort to boost farm production, reduce hunger, and build the economy. The AU has developed a plan called the Comprehensive African Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) which asks all countries to devote at least 10% of their annual budgets to agriculture.

Together we can feed the Bees

Former United Nations General Secretary Kofi Annan is Chairing the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). AGRA is working with the AU and all stakeholders to help grow Africa out of poverty. Last year, for the first time on African soil, the African Green Forum brought together a public-private partnership and 1,000 experts to lay out a blue print for African development with agriculture as the foundation. As Mr. Annan noted, it is time to turn hoes into tractors to build African economies.

Dr. Joe DeVries on the left, the chief seed scientist for AGRA, inspecting new sorghum varieties.

AGRA's approach is an integrated effort to improve seeds, soils, markets, public policy, capacity and credit simultaneously. In 2010, working with 40 local seed companies, AGRA produced over 25,000 metric tons of improved seed, and distributed it through 9,000 local agriculture dealers.

Most of the farms in Africa are small, only a few acres. Increasing agricultural production in Africa can be achieved using many of the same approaches employed in Mexico, India, and South America but requires a uniquely African approach. AGRA's goal is to produce 250,000 metric tons of improved seed a year in 15 emerging African “breadbasket” countries (in addition to South Africa).

The Two African Breadbaskets

There are basically two distinct “breadbaskets” emerging in Africa: In West Africa: Ghana, Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.

In East Africa, this region includes: Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, Mozambique, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

China, Japan and Saudi Arabia are all making a significant effort in Africa to make friends and build economic relationships. We must do the same.

The United States starts with an advantage in the world-wide competition for economic partnerships in Africa. Generally, the 47 sub-Saharan countries in Africa have a very positive view of the U.S. Most of the people of sub-Saharan Africa speak English, share a European history, appreciate the effort made by President George Bush to help Africa and, of course, are very enthusiastic about our first African-American President. These countries also represent 25% of the votes in the United Nations.

In the Annual Letter from Bill Gates, released by The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Mr. Gates had this to say about the role of agriculture: “Outside of health, the area where we invest the most to help poor people is agriculture. There is so much potential in agricultural development because most poor people in the world feed their families and earn their income from farming. When farmers increase their productivity, nutrition is improved and hunger and poverty are reduced. In countries like Rwanda, Ethiopia, and Tanzania, investments in seeds, training, access to markets, and innovative agricultural policy are making a real difference. Ghana made agriculture a priority and cut hunger by 75 percent between 1990 and 2004. The increase in food production has led to economic development in other areas.”

It is in the economic and political interest of the United States to make Africa a major focus of attention and agriculture is the place to start. Our expertise in agriculture is exactly what Africa needs to both feed itself and improve its economy. In the process we can build markets for our products and better relations with key political allies. USAID is finally moving in this direction. Under the leadership of Dr. Raj Shah, foreign aid is becoming economic development and there is a new emphasis on agriculture.

About the authorMarshall Matz was Counsel to the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry. He is the Founding Chairman of the World Food Program-USA and is a partner with OFW Law in Washington, D.C. mmatz@ofwlaw.com

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