African smallholder farmers are entrepreneurs, writes Strive Masiyiwa in Le Soleil

Why is it easier for farmers to get mobile phones in some of Africa’s remotest areas – from the Niger delta to the Rift Valley – than to get critical farming inputs, such as quality seeds and extension services?

As the founder of a global telecoms company based in Africa, I know that setting up a business can be hard work. But throughout the continent our communications sector has already shown how the combination of proper incentives, investment, and robust regulation can unleash a revolution.

Today, there are more than half a billion mobile connections in Africa. In many respects, we lead the world in mobile growth and innovation. So why haven’t we been able to do the same in agriculture? Why does Africa have a bumper annual food import bill of $35 billion, instead of a bumper harvest?

The Africa Progress Panel (APP), a group which I am proud to be part of, tackles this question in its annual report this year: Grain, Fish, Money – Financing Africa’s Green and Blue Revolutions. The study – which includes fisheries, forestry and financing – concludes that a large part of the answer lies in removing the odds stacked against our farmers.

Our farmers are entrepreneurs, just like their counterparts in the telecoms industry. Yet they face even greater risks in getting their goods to market.

This is particularly true of our smallholder farmers, most of them women, who cultivate plots about the size of a football field or two. She typically farms without the benefits of quality inputs – seeds, soil supplements and reliable irrigation – and access to credit. She often tills her land with little or no machinery because her earnings are too low to make any investments. On top of this she has to deal with the harsh reality of climate change that mean her crops are increasingly likely to fail. In the case of maize, her yields are set to reduce by a quarter. Despite these risks, our smallholders are as efficient as their larger counterparts – a remarkable result that is testament to our farmers’ tenacity and resilience.

But instead of supporting our farmers, we have hindered them. Excessive taxation, insufficient investment and coercive policies have all been a block on their growth. Our farmers need an enabling environment, not a preventing one.

The challenges facing African agriculture are great, but they can be overcome.

We have a new set of opportunities that have changed the context in which African agriculture operates today, making the possibility of achieving an African green revolution greater than ever before.

Soaring demand for food, especially in Africa’s rapidly growing cities, has attracted high levels of private investment and attention to the agricultural sector. Private sector players that were previously absent have now joined initiatives like GROW Africa, where over 100 hundred local, regional and international companies work in partnership with national governments to achieve agricultural growth targets. Over the past two years, these companies have committed more than $7.2 billion in farming investments.

African governments and development partners have also started to reverse a thirty year decline in agricultural investment. As with the private sector, growing local demand and rising global food prices jolted governments into action. Governments increasingly recognise the central role that agriculture can play in their national economic transformation plans. They understand that agriculture has the potential to reduce poverty twice as fast as any other sector.

We are already witnessing an agricultural renaissance in many parts of Africa. From Ghana to Rwanda, we see that when countries dedicate high levels of investment to agriculture, then they also achieve impressive rural growth. In turn, this fuels overall job creation and remarkable levels of poverty and hunger reduction.

However, today’s farming gains remain fragile. More needs to be done.

We need African governments to recommit to their Maputo Declaration pledge of investing at least 10 percent of their budgets to agriculture. Equally importantly, they need to give farmers the necessary roads, energy supplies, storage facilities and supportive policies to help rural areas thrive.

We need alliances where all stakeholders – private sector, farmers’ organisations and civil society – work together for agricultural development. After all, we share a common interest to make this work. The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) is one such mechanism. It supplies the largest amount of quality seeds – many of which are drought resistant – to millions of smallholder farmers throughout the continent.

We need to leverage mobile technology to revolutionise the way we approach agriculture. Much of this is starting to happen. African farmers can now get valuable information, such as market prices, receive input support through e-vouchers and secure credit through mobile services. Many of these innovative practices are more advanced and available to African smallholders than to their American or European counterparts.

2014 marks the Year of African Agriculture. As the Africa Progress Report points out, let us make this year truly a turning point for African agriculture. We need broad action on the policy, investment and technological fronts to help our farmers realise their entrepreneurial potential. Our farmers can double their productivity within five years. Let’s give them a real chance – like we did to our mobile entrepreneurs – to catalyse a uniquely African green revolution that ushers in an era of shared prosperity.

Published in: Le Soleil

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