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Hans Binswanger-Mkhize

Hans Binswanger-Mkhize believes that commercial agriculture is feasible in Africa (WRENmedia)
Hans Binswanger-Mkhize believes that commercial agriculture is feasible in Africa

Awakening Africa's agricultural potential

Hans Binswanger-Mkhize, based in Pretoria, South Africa, is co-author of a World Bank study, which discusses how the potential of about 400 million hectares of arable land in the African savannahs could be developed.

The Guinea Savannahs of sub-Saharan Africa are an enormous area, spread over 7 million square kilometres. The agricultural land is equivalent to that of Western Europe, and much of these lands have very low population density because, in the past, diseases and other factors have prevented or discouraged human settlement in these areas. But sooner or later the development potential has to be seized because this is one of the few areas in the world where land is relatively underutilised and where it could lead to much greater production.

The question is how can this area be developed? To answer this question we looked at similar areas across the world: the Cerrado of Brazil and the Northeast region of Thailand. Neither of these have better soil quality than the African savannahs, both are land-locked and both rely primarily on rain-fed agriculture. But these areas have become major international competitors in a wide range of commodities. And the Brazilian Cerrado had incredibly low population density, proving even low population density areas can be developed.

It is the first time that this zone in Africa has been subject to rigorous comparison and I believe the study gives us a greater level of confidence that commercial agricultural development is feasible here in Africa. This potential should be looked at in the development planning of every one of the countries which has a significant chunk of land in the Guinea Savannahs.

So why now?

African agriculture has become more profitable than it has been in the last 50-60 years. Governments are now running fairly well-defined and good macro-economic policies; they no longer overvalue their exchange rates, and they have considerably better agricultural policies than before. Combined with this, after decades of declining agricultural international prices, for the last three years agricultural prices have spiked and settled at much higher levels.

All this means that agriculture in Africa will generally be more profitable, farmers will have more money to invest in their farms, and other actors in the supply chains will be more interested in investing in agriculture. Because of rapid economic growth, domestic and regional demand for basic food grains, oil seeds and livestock products is growing very fast. So you have a very big potential for agricultural development from the demand side, something which was totally missing until 2000 or so.

There is another opportunity which has arisen: African countries now have much stronger commitments to agriculture through the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP), and undoubtedly in each of those CAADP processes they will be looking at seeing some of the opportunities which arise in the Guinea Savannahs zones. That is the reason for being generally optimistic about agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa and the Guinea Savannahs in particular.

Regional co-operation

Few sub-Saharan countries have no Guinea Savannah. The Guinea Savannah is a region within Nigeria. It is a region within Tanzania. It is a region within Burkina Faso. However, the size of Savannah regions within these African countries means that we need to look more closely at regional coordination.

Great benefits arise from coordinating agriculture and food policies so that basic staple commodities can move freely across countries to markets with the highest values. But regional integration in agriculture has moved relatively slowly even though everybody has talked about it. So we are saying you need to move more aggressively towards regional integration, including integration of research since many countries will not be able to do what Thailand or Brazil did in research for every single one of its commodities and farming systems. There are, of course, research results available for the Guinea Savannah zones which can be immediately employed, but there will have to be more research. There is already infrastructure going to the Guinea Savannahs but more is needed and construction will take time.

Grasping the opportunity

The window of opportunity for Africa for agriculture is clearly there. The opportunity to develop the Guinea Savannahs has been there since long ago, but it may not have worked because the demand side pressures were not enough and the prices were too low. So in that sense we also have an unusual opportunity. The eradication of onchocerciasis or river blindness and the reduction of tsetse fly, has also made more of these areas available for human settlements. We have experience from other parts of the world that these areas can be developed and lessons can be learnt from these other areas. It can be done. So why not in Africa?

Date published: July 2010


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