There's plenty of land. Why can't Africa feed itself?

Mathew Otieno
February 22, 2023
Reproduced with Permission

Africa has 60 percent of the world's uncultivated arable land. Moreover, agriculture makes up a significant proportion of the continent's collective economy and is, by far, the single biggest source of employment for Africans. In some countries, more than 80 percent of the working-age population works in the sector.

Why, then, is the continent the least food-secure region of the world and a net importer of food? Why have most recent famines taken place here? And why did food prices on the continent rise as significantly as they did following the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, as a keen reader asked in response to my first MercatorNet article for this year?

Several reasons for Africa's inability to feed itself have been proposed. In a 2021 article on The Conversation, three Australian academics argue that, though climate and geology play a role, the real reason is the lingering effects of colonialism.

Prior to colonialism, their argument goes, African farmers grew resilient crops attuned to the continent's many unique ecological niches and lived in harmony with nature. Colonialism disrupted this state of affairs by imposing a new agricultural paradigm. Instead of growing food, land and labour were redirected to growing export crops like cotton, cocoa and tea.

This is not unreasonable. Colonialism has certainly marked Africa. However, this argument is also useless, not least because it externalises responsibility even for the present woes of Africans. After all, many east and south Asian countries were colonised, too, yet very few of them are food insecure.

A variant of this argument is the claim, made by such authorities as the World Resources Institute, that agricultural subsidies by the governments of developed countries suppress agricultural productivity in Africa by distorting global food markets.

Once again, though technically correct, it still doesn't answer the question. Nothing prevents African governments from subsidising their own farmers, or correcting market distortions through their own tariffs and other import controls.

What's more, the main markets distorted by such subsidies tend to be non-food markets, like cotton and sugar. The main imported foods consumed in Africa, like rice, maize and wheat, tend to come from countries that don't significantly subsidise their farmers, like India, Brazil, and Ukraine.

A third argument is that Africa's small-holder farms are inefficient and cannot compete. This, too, is plausible. Countries with well-developed and highly productive agricultural sectors tend to have large farms.

However, this argument also cannot withstand the weight of evidence. While the United States, the world's largest exporter of agricultural goods, has giant farms, the Netherlands, which is the second largest exporter of agricultural goods (by value), is dominated by relatively smaller farms.

In short, there is no necessary correlation between average farm size and agricultural productivity. If anything, properly managed small farms are likely to be more productive per unit area, and therefore more efficient, than big farms.

So what then is the real reason?

It's pretty simple: African farmers are, on average, the poorest and least educated in the world. They have the least ability to afford irrigation, farm equipment, fertilisers, quality seeds, cutting-edge knowledge, and the other inputs that make for productive agriculture.

The proof for this argument is quite easy to see. Some African farms are extraordinarily productive.

Consider Kenya horticulture, which is characterised by professionally run farms, and which goes toe-to-toe with the best Dutch producers on the global market. The main difference between these outfits and their peasant-run counterparts is their relative access to capital and knowledge.

Experts tend to concoct highfalutin structural explanations and propose complicated solutions, instead of admitting that limited education and plain old poverty are the real barriers to high agricultural productivity in Africa, just as they have been in every other part of the world.

It was only through the professionalisation of the field that agriculture became as productive as it is, while employing single-digit percentages of the labour force, in developed countries. Even in the Netherlands, with its insanely productive small farms, less than two percent of the workforce is employed in agriculture.

Given this, the solutions to the problem of food security in Africa easily present themselves: education and economic development. Fortunately, both of these are trending in the right direction.

As African economies expand, and as farming is perceived more as a genuine professional aspiration for educated people with better access to capital and knowledge, rather than the undesirable fate of uneducated peasants, it follows that the sector will professionalise, gradually at first, but faster with time, leading to higher productivity and lower labour requirements.

In due time, fewer but better qualified African farmers will produce more food than the continent alone can consume. And, as governments develop essential infrastructure, like roads, it will become easier to move this food around, eliminating the final barrier to food security on the continent.

The real solution, then, is time.