Industries in Depth

2 truths about Africa's agriculture

A truck is loaded with bags of tea leaves at a plantation in Nandi Hills, in Kenya's highlands region west of capital Nairobi, November 5, 2014.

A truck is loaded with bags of tea leaves at a plantation in Nandi Hills, in Kenya's highlands region west of capital Nairobi Image: REUTERS/Noor Khamis

Wim Plaizier
Chief Operations Officer, African Parks Network
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Agriculture, Food and Beverage

There are two truths today about African agriculture: significant progress has been made, and there is potential for much more.

The progress has been quite impressive. Agricultural production is up 160% over the past 30 years, far above the global average of 100%. Eighteen Sub-Saharan African countries have reached the Millennium Development Goal’s first target of halving the proportion of people who are hungry. Country-level programmes (such as the Ethiopian Agricultural Transformation Agency), cross-border initiatives (for example, the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme), and pan-African groups (like the African Development Bank, the African Union and the New Partnership for Africa's Development) have all played important roles in these advances.

Yet there is vast room for improvement. Africa remains a net importer of food, although it has 60% of the world’s uncultivated arable land. As its population has doubled overall and tripled in urban areas in the past 30 years, agricultural production and food security have struggled to keep pace. Africa is the only continent where the absolute number of undernourished people has increased over the past 30 years.

Africa will have a population of 2 billion by 2050, and agriculture will be central to feeding all of those people. Agricultural transformation must build social cohesion, create beneficial continental trade, provide a platform for global exports, and, most importantly, help create millions of jobs while pulling subsistence farmers out of poverty.

Africa’s agricultural transformation at three levels

Transforming the agricultural value chain at three levels – farmer, market, and cluster – is central to any progress in Africa.


Smallholder farmers contribute up to 80% of sub-Saharan Africa’s food supply, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, and Africa has an estimated 33 million smallholder farms. Increasing their capabilities would increase Africa’s output and, more importantly, help solve Africa’s poverty and malnutrition.

Farmer-level transformation should seek to increase yields and reduce post-harvest losses. It requires granular-level interventions that form the basis for sustained economic and societal success. Enablement in areas like education, infrastructure, water management and regulation is crucial as well. Public-private initiatives can ensure capability-building support and the development of structures in areas like financing. Crop-specific government initiatives in certain areas, depending on soil and climatological specifics, could also benefit.

These initiatives are, by nature, very local. However, they can be facilitated by a pan-African perspective in three ways:

  • Best practice sharing. Providing a best practice clearinghouse for farmer associations and governments.
  • Support of governments. Aiding governments in skills development and coordinating cross-country initiatives.
  • Public-private partnership initiatives. Creating a first “port of call” for large corporate and institutional investors to ensure the effectiveness and coordination of investments.


Farmers need access to markets to earn their fair share of the profit pool in the value chain. Good markets, in turn, provide food security for the population and facilitate Africa’s agricultural self-sufficiency.

Making markets work is a supply chain infrastructure and information issue. Governments and private investors need to ensure that sufficient roads, warehouses, processing facilities and other infrastructure are in place to get products to increasingly urbanizing markets. Farmers need access to information to deliver products to the markets that offer them the best price.

At the regional and country levels, government and market actors need to create the markets that allow the trade of homegrown products. These initiatives in general cut across the wide spectrum of crops and products produced.

Markets are often developed at country level, but a pan-African strategy would include the best practice sharing and public-private partnership support we highlighted for the farmer level. Additionally, for markets, removing trade barriers and inefficiencies between countries and freeing up the traffic of agricultural produce across Africa would significantly boost the intra-African cross-border trade of produce.


In this final, macro level of transformation, Africa has the potential to become a major agricultural player globally, facilitating the export of its products outside the continent. Cluster-specific initiatives typically focus on product availability and production competence.

Dairy exports from New Zealand are one successful example of macro-level transformation. Years ago, the New Zealand Dairy Board created a platform for best practice sharing among its members to improve productivity and product quality and actively created export markets for excess products. Some of the dairy board’s activities became part of a new cooperative called Fonterra – now one of the leading global milk processors and dairy exporters, with roughly 22 billion litres of milk produced annually. Fonterra also produces more than 2 million tons of dairy ingredients, specialty ingredients and consumer products annually – 95% of which is exported. This allows New Zealand to punch above its weight in the dairy market.

Cluster-specific export initiatives like Fonterra should be a government goal in Africa. From a pan-African perspective, identifying sectors and coordinating initiatives across countries are essential steps to a transformation strategy.

A pan-African framework

Due to existing dynamics, African smallholders do not yet benefit from best-in-class global farming practices. They are often trapped in a vicious cycle that prevents them from improving their productivity and income. These farmers are, however, the fabric of African rural societies. Their future success is crucial as Africa’s population grows and urbanizes.

Strategies are only as effective as the change they bring about. Truly transforming African agriculture at the farmer, market and cluster levels depends on financing, government enablement and sustainability.

Financing will fund the improvements in the value chain on both the micro (farmer) and macro (export) levels. Government enablement means putting in place the regulatory frameworks and structures that foster a strong business environment – for example, giving farmers title to the land they use and allowing them to use that land as collateral for loans for investments that can build. The development should become sustainably effective through the close interaction of public and private enterprises (for example, the African Development Bank, international donors, or private enterprises buying into the value chain).

Success for Africa’s agriculture

Success at the farmer, market, and cluster levels require assistance from many sources.

Governments need to focus on significantly improving the enabling environment for local agriculture, particularly when it comes to land rights, infrastructure, market access and elevating women’s roles in society.

Pan-African institutions such as the African Union can help develop cluster opportunities across the continent and promote intra-African trade and best practice sharing.

The private sector can help by investing, understanding that Africa’s potential for growth and its untapped arable land offer huge opportunities in spite of the risks. Public-private partnerships can unlock value, as long as both sides share the onus of success.

No longer must Africa go hat-in-hand to feed its vibrant and resourceful population. It can help its own people feed themselves, their villages, towns and countries. As scale and quality develop, export markets from the continent can flourish, leading increasingly not just to poverty alleviation but wealth creation. As more inhabitants see the promise of a better future in agriculture, many more clusters will be developed, truly making Africa the breadbasket that the world so desperately hungers for.

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