Indian development economist Bina Agarwal advocated a comprehensive transformation of agriculture.
Photo: Roland Krieg

“Africa is the Future of the World“

The 19th “Tropentag” at the University of Bonn, Germany, once again demonstrated that development co-operation needs to be thoroughly revised. Basic objectives such as irrigation, improved seed or the establishment of agroforestry systems remain to be important topics. However, the industrialised countries have perceived a shift in target groups from the subsistence farmer to the agricultural small-scale entrepreneur who requires not only the right political framework conditions for rural regions but also investment capital.

“There is no life without food. There is no agriculture without water!” noted Bonn University’s Matthias Becker, summing up the significance of “Tropentag 2017” in two brief sentences while at  the same time looking back on the 19-year history of the event, which brings together young scientists with their latest research results at different universities once a year. In late September this year, around 1,000 participants from 17 countries had come to Bonn. The “Tropentag” has also been hosted in Prague, in the Czech Republic, and Vienna, Austria. Next year’s 20th event of this kind is to be held in Gent, in Belgium.

From donorship to partnership

Even though more than 800 million people are going hungry and over 1.5 are suffering from malnutrition, even though solutions such as agroforestry systems and drip irrigation are anything but new, the topics themselves are not obsolete. Development co-operation needed young experts and enthusiastic people, noted Stefan Schmitz of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ). Against the background of Agenda 2030 and the Paris Agreement on World Climate, co-operation between the North and the South was moving from donorship to partnership. Pressure on the ecosystems was growing, and the North had to make its contribution to conserving natural resources. This required a new development model, a kind of “green revolution”, but one that did not make the mistake of concentrating solely on yield, Schmitz explained. The BMZ is providing 1.5 billion euros a year for this type of co-operation.

Transformation is essential

Around 85 per cent of the world’s farmers cultivate less than two acres of land. These smallholders need to be moved to a more productive management system. Indian development economist Bina Agarwal of the UK’s University of Manchester cited a new survey among Indian farmers according to which 40 per cent of them no longer wish to work in agriculture. They are too poor, and their expectations associated with small investments have not materialised. In Bonn, Agarwal explained that these farmers ought to leave agricultural production and seek employment outside the sector.

Only with this kind of transformation was sustainable food production feasible, she argued. In this manner, Africa, which “Time Magazine” had characterised with the three negative “C’s” (Coups, Conflicts, Corruption), could follow the three positive “C’s” formulated by Agarwal: Co-operative, Community, Conservation.

A pioneering spirit in Africa

At least this kind of optimism was presented by Sierra Leone’s Minister of Agriculture, Monty Jones, in Bonn. With its 202 million hectares, Africa holds most of the area under cultivation world-wide. But only four to seven per cent of it is irrigated. Agriculture employs around 70 of Africa’s workers and contributes 32 per cent of the gross domestic product. Even though the continent, with its 52 countries, is very heterogeneous, almost every one of its regions has developed over the last few years. Educated middle classes are emerging in many countries and are increasingly seeking consumer goods. The continent has roused the interest of foreign investors, according to Jones. “I believe Africa is the Future of the World!” he declared in Bonn.

However, there is still a long way to go, and improvements in the agricultural sector are crucial. Cultivation is lagging behind developments world-wide. Since the 1960s, grain yield has hardly risen above the level of around one ton per hectare. Since then, East Asia has reached a level of 4.5 tons, Southeast Asia 2.2 tons and South Asia 1.5 tons harvested per hectare. Globally, agribusiness accounts for 78 per cent of value added in agriculture. Logistics and processing make up for 15 per cent each, while the upstream areas of inputs provide 23 per cent and trade contributes 25 per cent. In Africa, agribusiness has reached a mere 38 per cent.

Rural regions still have a poor infrastructure. According to Jones, what is above all missing is branch routes tapping new areas. Farmers have to put up with half their harvest going lost during storage and transportation before the rest reaches the market. Modes of cultivation have to be significantly improved, for Jones claims that 65 per cent of area under cultivation is degraded owing to salinification, desertification and erosion. Alone the incursion of deserts in sub-Saharan Africa is affecting 180 million people.

So there is a big gap between vision and reality. Jones says that countries have to strategically focus their financing and pursue pro-farmer policies. This could help the continent make up for its deficits in yield and productivity. He sees poverty reduction as the top priority, with the agricultural sector having to be in a position to simultaneously supply export markets and the domestic market. There must be no fear of contact with modern technologies. “I do not let the people die if biotechnology can help,” Jones declared in Bonn. The issue of whether plants were brought to the fields in a conventional, organic or genetically modified state came second. Growth had to be inclusive, so that benefits could be fairly shared.

Farming is becoming more female

In Asia, an average 42.6 per cent of smallholdings are kept by women. In Cambodia and Bangladesh, at 51 and 50 per cent respectively, the values are highest. But Thailand and China can also boast especially high values of 45 and 48 per cent. According to Bina Agarwal, shares are still increasing because men are increasingly finding employment in non-agricultural sectors. “Feminisation of agriculture is a global phenomenon,” Agarwal said in Bonn.

Her own surveys demonstrate that hand in hand with a rising share of women, community-managed forests are becoming healthier. In the Indian Federal State of Kerala, community work by women in the agricultural sector is being promoted. There, a current total of 62,000 women are leasing and managing land in communities of four to ten people. Whereas a comparable individual farm generates the equivalent of 1,320 euros per hectare and year, the women are earning an average income of 2,300 euros. They are also scoring better results in terms of the parameters net profit per hectare and net profit per farm.

With regard to the demands of the future, subsistence farmers can no longer remain subsistence farmers. Those who do not modernise and commercialise will become an obstacle to necessary development. At the same time, however, the subsistence farmers, an increasing share of whom are women, are the point to set out from to achieve inclusive growth in agriculture and, subsequently, the further economy, as well as being drivers of such developments. The presentation by international scientists at the “Tropentag” demonstrated what was required in terms of entrepreneurial prerequisites and institutional frameworks at farm and country level to maintain such processes.

Roland Krieg, journalist, Berlin/Germany