A Regional Lesson as U.S. Extends a Hand to Africa’s Farmers

Posted on December 4, 2012

Originally published in The National:

When Barack Obama was running for US president in 2008, you could find Obama-chewing gum in Kenya, Obama fabric in Benin and a hit radio song about Mr Obama in Ghana. To say that Africans were enthusiastic about a possible president with Kenyan ties would be a serious understatement. Now, four years later, the mood after his re-election is less jubilant. Many people are wondering: will the US demonstrate a commitment to Africa in Mr Obama’s second term?American influence in Africa has diminished in recent years. In 2009, the year Mr Obama took office, China displaced the US to become Africa’s largest trade partner. Middle Eastern investment is also on the rise in African countries, although it remains a small percentage of overall foreign direct investment.

Washington continues to view Africa as a continent in need of aid, as opposed to an attractive investment destination. George W Bush created PEPFAR, the public health programme that funded HIV treatment for millions in Africa. Bill Clinton is known for the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which provides the continent with trade preferences on thousands of goods. This year, the act was extended until 2015.

Under Mr Obama, the US strategy towards Africa has not changed significantly. Today four objectives underpin US strategy towards sub-Saharan Africa: strengthen democratic institutions; spur economic growth, trade and investment; advance peace and security; and promote opportunity and development.

Within the framework of this strategy, Feed the Future, a $3.5 billion (Dh12.8 billion) food security and agriculture development programme started during Mr Obama’s first term, has the greatest potential. Feed the Future offers Mr Obama a chance to address the looming problem of how to feed a growing global population. It also presents a way for the US to differentiate its policies from those of Asian and Middle East countries that are increasingly active on the continent.

In Rwanda, where I spend part of the year, roughly 90 per cent of the population depends on income from agriculture. Across the continent, the figure is slightly lower – about 80 per cent of people are smallholder farmers cultivating plots of under 2 hectares. These farmers produce the majority of the continent’s food. In Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia and Tanzania, for instance, over 75 per cent of agriculture production comes from smallholder farmers.

Yet crop yields lag behind the rest of the world, and farmers lack access to the inputs, credit, training and markets that they need to become successful businesspeople. But the yield gap also means that, unlike developed countries, African countries could significantly ramp up food production. Many analysts argue that unlocking yield gains for small farmers in Africa is necessary to feed the world’s future population.

Targeting small farmers is also the most efficient way to reduce poverty in Africa. Research shows that agricultural growth is up to 3.2 times more effective at reducing poverty for those who live on under $1 per day than growth in other sectors. Thus, Feed the Future has the potential to both increase global food supplies and reduce poverty.

Contrast this approach with that of Asian and Middle Eastern countries, which are also eyeing Africa’s agriculture potential. China, South Korea and several GCC states have begun investing significant sums in agriculture in Africa. However, they are doing so through large-scale land purchases that are intended for use as big commercial farming operations.

These large-scale purchases have increased dramatically in the last 10 years. A 2010 World Bank report noted that over 70 per cent of global land purchases studied were in Africa. According to the International Food Policy Research Institute, China, South Korea and the UAE are the top three purchasers of global farmland.

It’s possible that commercial farming could benefit smallholder farmers through technology transfer or labour income. However, the risks are significant. A programme like Feed the Future is much more likely to both increase agriculture productivity, through investments in new research, and to reduce poverty among farmers, through programmes that target them directly.

If Mr Obama does leave an Africa legacy, let it be one in which aid is a tool that unlocks economic opportunity for the largest population on the continent: small farmers.

Stephanie Hanson is an analyst and freelance writer based in East Africa and New York.

Posted in: The National