Some African countries are perhaps the next booming economies that will follow the Asian tigers to move from lower to upper-middle-income countries. Africa is home to the world’s fastest-growing economies, such as Ethiopia, Rwanda, Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal, Benin, Kenya, Uganda, and Burkina Faso, and others (Adegoke, 2019). However, there is a glimpse of hope due to the rising inequality, a devastating issue that slows down the development of the African economies. This growing inequality is attributed to Agriculture—the backbone of most African economies in which more than 60 percent of the population of sub-Saharan Africa is smallholder farmers (Goedde et al., 2019). Moreover, it is a home for half of the world’s impoverished population, which is almost 400 million people (UN, 2019). There is no mistake in mentioning that Agriculture is the key to reduce inequality and to facilitate the development process. We’ve seen Asian countries emerging from low to middle and high-income status in the 20th century, having Agriculture as the catalyst. 

Agriculture reality in SSA

Farmworkers tend plants at a palm oil plantation near the town of Bako, in Ethiopia, owned by an Indian company. Photograph: Jose Cendon/Getty

Some African states have been treating agriculture as the least area of focus. They are probably under pressure of catching up with the rest of the world and achieving MDGs, thus shifting focus on other sectors. This situation doesn’t imply they should not diversify their economies, which is, in fact, a way of catalyzing development. Instead, they need to value agriculture and assess whether it is the secret recipe for industrial development. Most of these nations remain adamant in fulfilling the 2003 Maputo Declaration to allocate 10% of their budget to agriculture development. Yet, there is a need to boost agriculture productivity by teaching farmers proper farming techniques, revising input subsidy programs, and setting up robust irrigation systems. Besides, there is a need to fix the crooked market systems and other value chain roadblocks, building roads and post-harvest infrastructure to reduce the post-harvest losses, and building factories to produce finished products to serve the local and international market. Our nations are lagging in most of these areas not because they’ve limited budgets but lack of will to increase the budget allocation to agriculture. Nigeria is one of the countries that have the potential to take agriculture to the next level, but it’s struggling. 7O% of its population practices agriculture, but the country invested only 1.5% of the budget in 2019 (Anudu, 2019). It is so absurd for a nation that has abundant human capital, natural resources, and the potential to lift many out of poverty to have 3 in every five people living in poverty where most of the poor practice farming. If Nigeria utilizes the expanse of arable land and abundant water bodies for irrigation, agriculture would surely lift many from poverty. Most of the sub-Saharan countries have not been showing much enthusiasm to develop agriculture; of course, there are some urgent projects to invest in boosting the economy, but agriculture should also be essential. 

How can Africa unleash its potential?

More than 60% of its 1.08 billion SSA population depends on agriculture for survival and contributes 23% to its GDP (Goedde et al., 2019). Yet, the agriculture potential of SSA remains untapped. “Africa’s annual food import bill of $35 billion, estimated to rise to $110 billion by 2025, weakens African economies, decimates its agriculture and exports jobs from the continent,” says Adesina Akinwumi, AfDB president (Shaban, 2017). Food insecurity is like a ticking time bomb that will blow things out one time because the population growth is peaking. At the same time, so far, we are not capable of producing sufficient food to feed the current population. However, SSA has the potential to feed itself and the world but requires significant investments. It will need eight times more fertilizer, six times more improved seed, at least $8 billion of investment in basic storage (not including cold-chain investments for horticulture or animal products), and as much as $65 billion in irrigation to fulfill its agricultural promise (Goedde et al., 2019). Moreover, it will also need to invest in infrastructures such as roads, electricity, and ports, and other necessary support to enable agriculture to thrive. The fruits of investing in the above areas will stimulate the growth of the rural economy, thus elevating millions of farmers from poverty. 

Lessons from Asian countries

Some East Asian economies have made significant investments with the support of effective policies that, in effect, contributed to food self-sufficiency for the region as a whole, and increased the share of world trade in agriculture produce. This approach has, in turn, elevated many rural households from poverty hence diversifying income from farm to no-farm activities. These non-farm activities sparked non-farm job opportunities for rural labor. The value of Southeast Asia’s overall agricultural production grew almost twice as fast as the global average and more rapidly than the region’s share of the world’s population since 1960 (Rousseau & De Koninck, 2013). 

China has had a phenomenal transition since the last decade. A country that had over a billion population managed to transition from an agrarian economy to a world industrial powerhouse. Many small nations with small populations failed what china with such a significant population achieved. The strategy was to perform bottom-up reforms starting from the promotion of rural agriculture by helping farmers set up collective industrial enterprises across the country where they acted as engines of economic growth (Wen, 2016). The number of village firms rose to 18.9 million, giving jobs to 100 million peasant workers, and village industrial gross output increased 13.5-fold contributing to 46% from 14 % of GDP in ten years (Wen, 2016). Because of such phenomenal growth in the supply of basic consumer goods, China solved its food security crisis and elevated 800 million farmers from poverty (Wen, 2016)—wow! It is pertinent to learn from the footsteps of Asian countries who managed to make formidable improvements in agriculture. However, it would be a fallacy to copy their development paths because each country’s development path relies on its social-economic context and culture. Still, the foundation is the same—investment policy and infrastructure development plus determination. 

What now?

Africa is in the middle of a development journey that many nations have gone through. There are many lessons to learn and those to unlearn to navigate this journey until completion. If we take a step back in the last century, some Asian countries had the same GDP as African countries but managed to leap from the third to first world countries while the latter’s development kept declining over the past decades. South Korea had the same GDP per capita as Ghana in 1957—look at the progress of South Korea! In 1960, more than half of the world’s abject poverty was in East Asia; today, that number is less than 15 percent, whereas Africa’s share in world poverty was 15 percent; today, it’s more than 50 percent (Gill & Karakülah, 2018). African nations lacked leadership focused on development back then. As of now, many countries in sub-Saharan Africa are on the right track where significant investments go to infrastructure development, education, healthcare, and industrial development, but agriculture receives less attention. But the rural economy—which is heavily dependent on agriculture being practiced by 60% of the African population, must receive much attention because it portrays the potential to stimulate industrial development, as it did for China and South Asian economies. What is needed is not necessarily copy the western industrial revolution process or Asian one; but to reconsider the implication of agriculture to reducing inequality and driving growth, thereby revising agriculture policies and increasing investments in research and development, extension services, and infrastructure. Refocusing on Agriculture will help many African nations to lift millions of farmers from poverty, create millions of jobs, close the inequality gap, and Africa will feed itself and the world, hence enabling them to join the high-income economies. 


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