Columns, Opinion

Worldview: The obstacles facing a green revolution in Africa

Beginning in the 1960s, much of Asia underwent dramatic agricultural transformation which saw enormous improvements in production and efficiencies, and subsequently helped pull millions of people out of poverty, prevent famines and modernize the Asian economy. This transformation was dubbed the “Green Revolution,” and is often cited as the key event which created the vast economic gap between the nations of Asia from those of Africa. While Asia adopted modern technologies such as superior fertilizers and irrigation techniques, Africa failed to make any significant agricultural gains and subsequently never developed and diversified like Asia was able to.

Africa’s agriculture has never developed much beyond subsistence farming, primarily on account of its terrain being unconducive to large-scale farming — the “unlucky fate of Africa” is that its soil fertility is low while its rainfall is erratic and unreliable as a water source. Nonetheless, it is disconcerting that Africa is unable to produce enough food and instead has increasingly had to rely on food imports. The booming urban population in Africa will necessitate a steady supply of food, ideally from the countryside, and the lack of progress in Africa’s agricultural sector is thus a subject of great concern.

On the flipside, the subject is also one of great optimism as the opportunity that agriculture presents for Africa has the potential to transform the continent in a similar manner as Asia’s transformation half a century prior. Ephraim Nkonya, a member of a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, expressed this optimism concisely, saying, “Africa is the future breadbasket of the world.” Prophesying that a continent which only accounts for two percent of the world’s food exports will become the “breadbasket of the world” is certainly optimistic. However, there are a number of factors supporting Nkonya’s hypothesis.

Africa’s growing population is expected to double from 1.2 billion to 2.5 billion by 2050. While this enormous growth does present serious infrastructural and demographic challenges, it also provides an excellent opportunity to grow economically and agriculturally. Moreover, technological advancements in agriculture and agriculture-related industries, such as improvements in fertilizer and genetic modification as well as greater access to electricity and mechanization, have the potential to truly revolutionize Africa’s agricultural sector.

Yet many of the same systemic reasons that prevented the Green Revolution from taking hold in Africa in the ‘60s remain, as well as a plethora of new ones — most notably is the issue of government capacity and corruption. While African states certainly have made great steps toward centralizing and liberalizing their regimes since time of the first Green Revolution, flaws in their network are the primary roadblock preventing a genuine renovation of African agriculture.

For one, governments simply do not have the ability to sufficiently subsidize farmers. The repercussions of this are twofold. For one, farmers are not able to obtain significant quantities of vital materials, such as fertilizer or seed. As an example, the average farmer in Ghana uses 7.4 kg of fertilizer per hectare of land while a South Asian farmer uses over 100 kg of fertilizer per hectare. A consequence of this lack of fertilizer is that the natural nutrients from the soil are used up at an alarming rate. It is estimated that 8 million tons of nutrients are depleted from the soil every year in Africa. Furthermore, wealthier countries which are able to fully subsidize their agricultural sector tend to artificially lower prices of their goods, which in exchange makes African crops less competitive.

Another issue is corruption. While of course it varies from country to country, corruption remains a large issue in Africa, and it plays a role in preventing agricultural progress. Corruption has a dual effect of limiting the availability of both the land and subsidized material to farmers. As a form of payment, large tracts of land are oftentimes granted to city dwellers who have political connections. Similarly, corruption or just plain incompetence limits the effectiveness of already scarce subsidies. For example, in Nigeria, only 11 percent of subsidized fertilizer reached small-scale farmers at the subsidized price in 2012.

The path to Africa becoming the “breadbasket of the world” is thus murky at best. Systemic issues of the state and of the international order remain critical obstacles which need to be overcome if a Green Revolution is to come to fruition. Should they be overcome, however, it is possible that Africa may experience an economic transformation on par to the one Asia undertook in the ‘60s which could propel Africa into a position of power and international interest.

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