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Agriculture reform is key to Africa’s ground-up economy

• Published on 23 May 2014 • Category : Africa

Last week, former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo wrote an editorial for Forbes magazine titled “Agriculture is the New Oil”. In the piece, Obasanjo argued that Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation and, as of 2014, its largest economy, needed to turn its attention from oil rigs to farmland. Owning the continent’s largest economy would mean little, Obasanjo argued, if Nigeria still couldn’t afford to feed itself.

Obasanjo called it Nigeria’s Agricultural Paradox: How can a country with 84 million hectares of arable land and two of Africa’s largest rivers also have a government that in 2013 spent just 1.7 percent of the budget on agricultural programs? Obasanjo -- along with Nigerian citizens and African leaders -- agree that a self-sufficient nation is impossible as long as the country focuses on oil, a crude natural resource largely used for export, when agriculture could fulfill the needs of a fast-growing domestic population.

If recent findings are any indication, Obasanjo’s fight in Nigeria is a microcosm for the African continent. The United Nations’ Africa Renewal project released a 2014 special edition titled “Agriculture is Africa’s new frontier”. In the packet the group discusses how many Africans still go hungry, as poverty and food shortages pervade the continent despite reports of economic boom times. The expansion of agriculture is not only possible, owing to Africa’s wealth of farming resources, temperate climates and tillable land, but it would also help soften Africa’s woeful youth unemployment figures. In South Africa -- one of Africa’s best economies -- nearly half of young people are unemployed. Figures elsewhere paint a similarly grim picture.

Yet the UN reports that only nine (of 54 total) African countries have invested over 10 percent of their budgets to agriculture. In many countries, allocation for agriculture is actually falling year-over-year. But this level of commitment necessary to insure farmers and crops, construct better infrastructure for the farming trade, fund fertilizer and healthy crop investment and education as well as build programs to generate employment.

The year of African agriculture continued last week with the release of the 2014 African Progress Panel Report entitled “Grain, Fish, Money: Financing Africa’s Green & Blue Revolutions”. Much like the Africa Renewal report, the panel’s findings were startling. Nearly two-thirds of the African population is affected by agricultural trends, and food shortages in sub-Saharan Africa -- long known as the continent’s breadbasket -- threaten the entire population.

So how does Africa improve its agricultural outlook? Perhaps more than in any other economic sector, national leaders must work together to cross national lines and reduce tariffs to make transportation easier for farmers. Governments must also make it easier for outside investment to fund agricultural evolution, while also relying more on domestic food production than foreign imports.

Much like Obasanjo argued for Nigeria, Africa can only become a true economic power after it first becomes self-sufficient, and that starts in the fields and rivers.

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