Employment In Africa: Think Agriculture!

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What would it take to put agriculture first in Africa?

What would it take to put agriculture first in Africa?

By PHILIPPE EGGER via ILO News— Economic growth in Africa is forecast to continue at a robust rate, slightly above the recent trend of 5% a year.

Africa is also urbanizing fast, with an average of close to 40% of the population living in cities.

As such, it may seem paradoxical to suggest that agriculture should be Africa’s number one priority, especially when it comes to employment. But there are very good reasons for this.

More than 60% of Africa’s economically active population works in and lives from agriculture; more than one third of total value-added comes from agriculture; and, surprisingly, Africa imports close to US$50 billion worth of food every year, mostly to feed its rapidly expanding urban population (see chart).

This is equivalent to what Africa receives in official development aid, and over five times more than the amount invested in future economic growth by the African Development Bank.

The reality is that governments, international development lenders and policy advisers alike have neglected agriculture in Africa.

This carries a high cost: Per capita food production has barely grown during the last 50 years, at a pace of 0.06% a year.

With the population rising at 2.6% a year, food imports have increased at an annual rate of 3.4% since 1980, with cereals accounting for the largest share. Africa receives close to half of the world’s total cereal food aid.

Yields are comparatively low at an average of 1.3 tons per hectare of harvested land, less than half the world average. Yields have increased at an annual rate of just over 1%, while the world average grew 2%.

AFRICA:Putting Agriculture First, What Would It Take?

Africa needs to focus on raising food output per unit of land among the large majority of small-holders.

An “agriculture first” strategy – widely discussed in the 1970s – would raise much needed foreign exchange currently used to import food that should be grown in Africa; it would protect the continent from the vagaries of volatile food prices and it would raise incomes in rural areas, reducing poverty and raising demand to boost growth. This would provide more productive jobs for a significant share of Africa’s youth.

What would it take to raise output among small-holders?

In 2003, the African Union adopted a plan for agriculture comprising wider use of fertilizer and sound water management techniques; support to rural infrastructure and market access; and agricultural research. These broad orientations require full attention and broad application.

Africa can learn from its own varied experiences, from the lower yields of Senegal or Sudan, to the higher yields of Malawi or Zambia.

Trade can play an important role.

The priority must go to trade within Africa to raise exchanges between food surplus and deficit countries. At present, food imports are favored from regions with large subsidies to producers, thus artificially depressing world prices.

Sustained and broad-based growth in Africa cannot take place without robust agricultural growth underpinning employment and incomes for the large majority of the employed population.

Turning this agenda into reality is a major task for the next 10 to 20 years.

PHILIPPE EGGER is Director of the ILO Bureau of Programming and Management


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