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Producing the cream of the crop

By Nicholas Norbrook
Posted on Monday, 23 May 2011 14:28

Cheap technological advances, new mapping techniques and specialised corridors are taking African producers even closer to a revolution in agricultural productivity

The dictators of North Africa are acutely aware of the political dimensions of food security. Presidents Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Gaddafi were blind to history, but they all knew the importance of keeping bread cheap. As commodity prices spike once again – oil first and food second – so too does the groundswell of concern about widespread hunger and the urgency of getting more productivity out of African crops.

The point is not boosting productivity for food security’s sake. African farmers have an historic opportunity to meet the continent’s own needs while selling the surplus to hungry legions in Asia and elsewhere, in the process transforming the structure of their economies.

Perversely, policies designed to keep food cheap in the cities ruined rural livelihoods by eliminating incentives to produce more. In turn, Africans living in rural areas often missed out on the small pools of capital that normally build up in the countryside and which are often invested in useful things such as the education of a child, or purchasing an olive press or a tea-drying unit.

There are several ways to approach the problem. The first is at farm level. Unable to or advised against throwing large amounts of subsidised fertiliser and seeds at farmers, African governments are keen proponents of cheap technologies that boost productivity. The most obvious and well-documented has been the use of mobile phones to allow farmers to know the prices at the various markets and to accelerate or slow down the progression to selling points.

But there are plenty more. Rex Raimond of the Meridian Institute explains how a simple polyethylene plastic tank can be re-purposed to form a seed and grain store, thereby avoiding post-harvest losses. Higher up the technological ladder, companies are developing low-cost nanofilters to eliminate many of the water-borne parasites that affect cattle, leading to healthier and bigger beasts.

The use of geographical positioning technology is creating a revolution in mapping land for titling. In Ethiopia, for instance, local authorities are using a scheme first developed in India to provide land certificates. A step towards full land rights, it creates assets recognised by banks, helping to get around the “dead capital” problem underlined by the Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto. However, Calestous Juma, the Harvard academic and author of The New Harvest, warns that “in agriculture there are no low-hanging fruits. The farming system involves a complex community of actors and so a harvest can only be understood in this broader context.”?

Juma also highlights Fundación Chile’s role in identifying and monitoring appropriate technology from around the world, which has helped fight rural poverty in Chile. Policy-level interventions designed to boost productivity, beyond the not insignificant infrastructure com­mit­ments of rural roads, electrification and water management, revolve around research. Juma adds, “Ethiopia has recently established a new Agricultural Transformation Agency and it is hoped that it would also be involved in technology prospecting. It appears on the surface that this agency has borrowed a leaf from Brazil’s Agricultural Research Corporation (EMBRAPA). This model is interesting because it adopts a value-chain approach to agriculture.”??


Several decades of underinvestment have taken their toll. But in countries where linkages between higher education and agriculture are taken seriously, the results are more promising. Between 1995 and 2004, Kenya’s banana crop doubled, reaching 1m tn. This happened because researchers were able to isolate genes resistant to Sigatoka disease, which was decimating crops at the time.

More often than not, however, it is international bodies such as the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), based in Ibadan, Nigeria, or those linked to the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), that come up with such fixes. The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) sent Mozambique 11,200 varieties of rice, and local scientists selected 18 for trials in the south of the country, where yields are around 1.2tn per hectare. The new variety is six times as productive as the old types.

Moving towards higher yields requires a blend of practical steps that results in the latest technology getting into the right hands. Sometimes, the private sector can act as the vector. Nile Fresh Produce is importing Israeli greenhouses to allow farmers in Kabale, Uganda, to grow fruit and vegetables year round. A nucleus farm employing 600 workers will be surrounded by 40,000 outgrowers, says the company.

Sometimes, government is better placed to act. In Kenya, the authorities set up two milk coolers, vital infrastructure for farmers who have to take steps to prolong the life of their product. Having the farmers congregate in one place also allows the government to provide veterinary services and spread the latest tips on dairy management. The government is following a similar process in the aquaculture sector, opening six shops where farmers can get inputs, technical support and help in accessing markets.

This concentration of farmers and extension services is perhaps the most encouraging sign of a move towards industrialisation of agriculture in Africa. Clustering significant poles of production together in a co-?ordinated manner, linking crop and livestock production to food-processing areas and providing access to export and domestic markets are all developments that are key to this transition.

The best known of these projects is the Beira corridor in Mozambique, which seeks to use a rejuvenated Beira port and railway system to provide sea access to Malawian, Zambian and Zimbabwean farmers.

Though the idea behind corridors is compelling – the booming demand for food across the Pacific and the obvious synergies in weaving together production, processing, infrastructure and logistics – the implementation of them is more difficult. Despite having several heavyweight anchor clients and bringing together governments and the private sector, the backers of the Beira corridor project are still having problems in securing financing and attracting ‘patient’, long-term capital to invest in the early stages of the plan.??


The Southern Agricultural Growth Corridor is at an earlier stage of development. Similar in concept, it has ambitions to rival the Cerrado region of Brazil. According to Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete, it will tie in smallholder farmers into industrial-scale farms, helping with the transmission of business plans and know-how.

A condensed version of these corridors can be found in processing zones. These are generally near the coast or based near large population centres. They host crop production, processing, packaging and marketing units. Italian consultants Ambrosetti have signed a memorandum of understanding with the Ugandan government and are currently involved in a similar project in Tanzania.

Future-gazers will not stop there. India, one step down the road, may be a good place to look. Near Hyderabad is a vast expanse, nicknamed ‘Genome Valley’. Combining industries like biotechnology, agribusiness, medicine and telecoms, it is creating a swathe of companies specialising in the life sciences that are set to provide the second act in India’s technology revolution. It’s something that Africa, with its huge untapped genetic resources, can aim for.

This article was first published in the April 2011 edition of The Africa Report

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