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A peaceful agricultural revolution is possible

Monday September 26 2016

By BITANGE NDEMO
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Kenya hosted the 2016 African Green Revolution Forum (AGRF) in Nairobi, between September 5 and September 9. 

The conference theme was "Seize the Moment: Africa rising through agricultural transformation". 

It was expected that the conference would advance policies necessary to secure the investments that will ensure a better life for millions of Africa’s farmers and families.

Africa now has more information to effectively deal with her future food requirements, unlike in the past.

Since 2009, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) has been sending warnings of an impending crisis if we can’t produce enough food in the coming decades.

FAO estimates that the world must produce 70 per cent more food for an additional 2.3 billion people by 2050, while at the same time combating poverty and hunger. 

The UN body also points out that using scarce natural resources more efficiently and adapting to climate change will be among the major challenges the world will face in the coming decades.

These challenges are beginning to be felt. Productivity, especially in Africa, is on a downward spiral, and some countries are responding to it by increasing the acreage under crops. 

This is not the way to go, as there are limits to such a strategy. Big data analytics show that the best strategy is to increase yield, using less resource to produce more. 

This is simply because land is a finite resource, a fact that is best illustrated by the United States, which is always concerned about increasing yields despite having huge tracts of land.  

In this blog post, I will comprehensively review maize production since it forms the primary food for Africa. 

Using US Department of Agriculture data sources and the Gro Intelligence data analytics tool Clews, I show US patterns of production since 1870 and compare them with sub-Saharan Africa’s production patterns. 

Africa’s current yields are of great concern since they lag behind population growth rates. In some countries like Kenya and Tanzania the yield is on the decline. 

The star performers in Africa are South Africa and Ethiopia, but the yields currently are equivalent to pre-World War II yields in America. The graph below compares yields in the US against those of sub-Saharan Africa. 

In Kenya, for example, we seem to be groping in the dark. We sort of know there is a problem.

Perennially, policymakers have intervened by providing fertilizer. But this is not where the problem lies. As you will see later in this article, interventions in the US were multi-pronged. They succeeded and today the US produces more than it needs, and thereby exports more and even uses some to produce biofuels.

Chart 1: US Maize Yields vs Sub-Saharan African
Chart 1: US Maize Yields vs Sub-Saharan African Maize Yields.

Throughout the 19th and parts of the 20th centuries, maize yields in the US were virtually static until the passage of the 1933 Agricultural Adjustment Act. The first “farm bill” established the New Deal mix of commodity-specific price and income support programmes.

It became the basis of the 20th century transformation of American agriculture and farm policy. US agriculture has become increasingly efficient, contributing to the overall growth of the US economy. 

Other notable policy interventions after the Great Depression were the introduction of the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation that was instrumental in stabilising the market.

These were deliberate measures that induced agricultural transformation. As a result, the number of farms in the US declined while their average size increased, allowing greater farm mechanisation. 

At the time, more than 50 per cent of the US workforce was in farming activities compared with a tiny workforce in agriculture today. Every spike in the yield was as a result of policy intervention. 

The steady improvement in yield throughout the 1940s was as a result of widespread adoption of hybrid seed. The increased production made America a net food exporter during World War II. By the 1960s farm consolidations pushed the US further ahead, due to economies of scale.

South Africa has the highest maize yield in Africa today at 4.06 tons per hectare (t/ha) compared with 10.95 (t/ha) in the US.

Whilst South Africa’s yield rate compares to what the US had in 1960s, most other African countries have not reached the US pre-reform yield of 1.88 (t/ha) in 1920. Yet much of the knowledge to improve yield is readily available.

In essence, Africa’s population is growing faster than the yields of its staple food. In the US, as the yields increased, the area under crops stayed largely constant. In Africa, however, output increases with an increase in area of farming, as shown in chart 2 below. 

This is unsustainable. It cannot continue for too long in an area where the number of farms keeps on multiplying with declining yields.

 

Area harvested vs production quantity of maize
Area harvested vs production quantity of maize in the United States and Sub Saharan Africa. SOURCE | GRO INTELLIGENCE

In essence, we know precisely what we need to do to stimulate agricultural transformation in Africa. Unfortunately, minimalist thinking outweighs transformative thinking. 

We must start the debate on land consolidation to lower the number of farms and improve farm sizes for greater mechanisation. 

With fewer farmers, it will be possible to educate farmers to use hybrid seed, to optimise production and improve pricing through formal commodities exchanges. 

Above all Africa must build weather-monitoring infrastructure. There are far fewer weather stations in Africa than there are in Texas, US (see chart 3 below.

Indeed there are only two stations for monitoring global weather patterns in Africa - Assekrem in the Algerian Sahara, and Mount Kenya in equatorial East Africa – part of the Global Atmosphere Watch (GAW) of the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO).

Increasingly, countries are using both structured and unstructured data to make weather predictions that minimize losses for farmers, but this is impossible to do without proper weather monitoring. 

As a result, Africa is still heavily relying on rain-fed agriculture. When the rains fail, it almost always leads to a catastrophic famine. We can avoid these mistakes that we often repeat almost every four years.

Sub-Saharan Africa has 35 times the landmass of
Sub-Saharan Africa has 35 times the landmass of Texas, and roughly the same number of weather stations. SOURCE | GRO INTELLIGENCE

The current state of farming is erratic. Farmers have high post-production losses, and there is virtually nothing in the supply chain that can be predicted as is in other countries. 

Let us leverage AGRF to begin an agricultural transformation for Africa. Even without controversial land consolidation, there is sufficient land to set the revolution in motion.

Former US President John F. Kennedy once said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”

We have a chance to make a peaceful agricultural revolution. Let’s make it possible.

The writer is an associate professor at University of Nairobi’s School of Business. Twitter: @bantigito