Malawi sets stellar example with push for food security

Generally agriculture remains the Cinderella of African development. Though it is the bedrock of most economies, governments have largely neglected it.
Generally agriculture remains the Cinderella of African development. Though it is the bedrock of most economies, governments have largely neglected it.
Image: KAREN MOOLMAN

Lazarus Chakwera was sworn in as Malawi’s president in July after defeating the incumbent, Peter Mutharika, in a rerun presidential election. One of his first acts was to push through parliament a provisional budget aimed mainly at subsidising fertiliser for 3.5-million smallholder farmers.

Is Malawi showing Africa the way to agricultural reform? Though tiny, it is the only African country delivering on the commitment all African countries made in 2014 — to spend at least 10% of their national budgets on agriculture.

Generally agriculture remains the Cinderella of African development. Though it is the bedrock of most economies, governments have largely neglected it in favour of other sectors, such as mining and manufacturing and wooing the urban elite.

With the spectacular economic success of China and other Asian Tigers, export-led manufacturing has come to be seen as the model for rapid growth and development. And where agriculture figures at all, the injunction has also generally been to export — with an emphasis on cash crops.

So the neglected African farmer uses far less fertiliser and irrigation — just more than 3% of cultivated land under irrigation vs the global average of 21% — than farmers elsewhere in the world. And they face deeper infrastructure obstacles, such as poor road and rail access to markets, and also low access to financing, says Jakkie Cilliers, founder and now chair of the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in Pretoria, in his new book Africa First!: Igniting a Growth Revolution.

The result of the neglect of agriculture has been lower crop yields, large agricultural trade deficits, malnutrition and low rural incomes. Though agricultural yields in Africa are improving, the gap with the rest of the world is widening. Average tonnes per hectare are now about 3.7, vs about seven in South Asia and 12 in South America.

And Cilliers notes that Africa had a large average agricultural trade deficit (the value of imports minus that of exports) of about $100bn in 2018, which was expected to rise to more than $330bn-plus by 2030. This growing deficit is aggravated by post-harvest wastage of food crops, the highest in the world. And the overall agricultural trade deficits aggravate food insecurity and malnutrition.

For instance, when Kenya shifted from being a net exporter of about 1% of its food demand between 1970 and 1990, to being a net importer of about 5% of food demand between 1997 and 2013, the average Kenyan’s calorie intake dropped from about 2,300 a day — the recommended amount — to only 2,000 a day.

This calorie-deficient diet is a driver of undernutrition and stunting, which can contribute to a variety of health problems that force children to fall behind or withdraw from school, Cilliers says. And so he proposes a different approach to agriculture: for African countries to return to basics; to support their smallholder, subsistence farmers so they can grow staple indigenous food crops such as cassava, cowpea and yam mainly for domestic consumption, using traditional farming methods, rather than cash crops, with “sophisticated” methods.

In order to capitalise on the benefits of having an educated and healthy population there needs to be an unwavering emphasis on self-sufficiency, as well as on productivity improvements

“In order to capitalise on the benefits of having an educated and healthy population there needs to be an unwavering emphasis on self-sufficiency, as well as on productivity improvements,” Cilliers says in the chapter titled “Wanted: A Revolution in Agriculture”. That, he argues, will solve the continent’s fundamental problem of food insecurity and poor nutrition, sending better-fed children to school to learn more and acquire the necessary skills to drive economic growth.

The rise in farmers’ incomes will stimulate rural economies and create upstream and downstream businesses centred on farming. And so he models an “agricultural revolution” scenario in which African governments would intervene by boosting average crop yields from the current 3.7 tonnes/ha to 5.5 tonnes/ha in 2030 and 6.2 tonnes/ha in 2040; increasing the area of land under cultivation by crops and the land under irrigation each by 10% between 2020 and 2030; and cutting post-harvest losses by 15%.

The impact would be “impressive”, Cilliers says, including an additional 440-million tonnes of all foods by 2040 compared to the current path forecast. Average calories per person a day would rise from 2,600 in 2018 to more than 3,000 in 2040, meaning 3.5-million fewer malnourished children. Economically, the scenario would boost GDP per capita by an extra $260 and reduce the number of extremely poor Africans by 128-million. 

Michael Aliber, head of agricultural economics at the University of Fort Hare, generally agrees with Cilliers’s analysis, including the way he grounds the current state of agriculture in historical and geophysical realities — which includes Cilliers’s assessment of Africa’s generally poor soil and its experience of both Arab and European slavery as major inhibitors of agricultural development.

It clearly is a good thing for African governments to boost agricultural production, but is it necessary to aspire to self-sufficiency, as Cilliers proposes? As he is fully aware, a classic trade theorist would disagree, noting the notion of “comparative advantage”, saying countries should produce whatever they can produce most efficiently, and import the rest.

Few countries globally are self-sufficient in food. Most would prefer to devote their time, energy and intelligence to producing and exporting, say computer chips, and use the large revenues from those to import food.

Malawi President Lazarus Chakwera and First Lady Monica Chakwera leave his inauguration at the Kamuzu Baracks, the Malawi Defence Force Headquarters, in Lilongwe on July 6 2020.
Malawi President Lazarus Chakwera and First Lady Monica Chakwera leave his inauguration at the Kamuzu Baracks, the Malawi Defence Force Headquarters, in Lilongwe on July 6 2020.
Image: AFP/ AMOS GUMULIRA

As Cilliers shows, Africa’s basic problem of a large and growing agricultural trade deficit is not necessarily addressed only by focusing on staples. The deficit is largely the result of the widely lamented phenomenon that Africa exports mainly raw, unprocessed agricultural products (and other commodities) and so earns relatively little in foreign currency for them.

In the case of Kenya, growing more of its own food would reduce food imports and therefore, all else being equal, reduce the trade deficit and also increase calorie intake. But the deficit could and arguably should be addressed also by adding value to cash crop exports such as cocoa and cashew nuts, as Cilliers also suggests, noting how Africa produces 45% of the world’s cashew nuts yet exports 90% of that crop for processing abroad, and produces 70% of the world’s cocoa beans but is responsible for less than 1% of chocolate exports.

Theoretically, if Africa could correct that imbalance — as countries such as Ivory Coast and Ghana are starting to do, Cilliers says, by processing more of their own cocoa — it would close the agricultural trade deficit and earn more money that could be used for imports.

But perhaps the global market is simply not working for this continent and so it has, at the very least, to avoid hunger and starvation by growing its own food.

• Fabricius is a consultant to the ISS.


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