Africa could be importing $100 billion worth of food in the next 10 years, AfDB's VP of Agriculture says
African economies are importing net about $35 billion per year of food and that’s going to go up to over $100 billion in the next decade if nothing changes.
Conversations focused on the need to take stock of where Africa’s agricultural revolution is headed, examining the steps that have been taken so far to see what is and isn’t working.
Business Insider Sub-Saharan Africa was present at the event and we caught up with key figures to discuss topics ranging from the meaning of this year’s theme to youth participation in agriculture and many others.
In this interview, we sit down with Jennifer Blanke, Vice-President Agriculture, Human and Social Development at the African Development Bank (AfDB).
The interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Business Insider Sub-Saharan Africa (BI SSA): What are your thoughts on the theme of this year’s AGRF?
Jennifer Blanke (JB): This year is really about leadership and taking what we know and doing something with it. The big issue with agriculture in Africa right now is that everybody knows what needs to be done and yet, not enough of that is getting done.
For example, we know that we need to get the right kinds of technologies to farmers in order to massively increase productivity. Productivity in agriculture in Africa has lagged behind all other regions and has even lagged behind growth. And when you think about the fact that 60-70% of Africans work in agriculture, that’s really worrisome for poverty reduction, for an increase in income, and things of that nature.
So, we know what the problem is. We even have the technology to fix it and yet, that is not happening at scale. A lot of the conversations that will be going on over the next few days will involve the actors who really can make a difference, think about AGRA, which is really at the core of this event.
You have the African Development Bank, we lend and provide grants for a lot of these activities and ideas. Others like the Rockefeller Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, also provide support and we all recognise that if we all work together, especially with the governments to usher in all the investments needed, then a lot can happen.
BI SSA: A lot has been said about political will and how it is needed to transform agriculture on the continent. How do you think we can improve this?
JB: To be honest with you, I don’t think there’s a lack of political will, policymakers are just in a tricky situation because, we live in a world of limited resources and in many African countries, they are particularly limited. So, how do you decide how you’re going to spend? Are you going to put into agriculture, education, roads?
I think the main point that we're discussing here (at AGRF) is to make it clear to policymakers and others that developing agriculture, first of all, is not just about developing agriculture. It really does require a lot of other things -- the infrastructure that we know is important, and education.
But also that agriculture, for me as a development economist, is not an end-game, in and of itself. It is a vehicle via which every other region in the world has developed. You can’t find any region in the world that has developed without seeing an increase in productivity in its agriculture and also an increase in processing for the most part. Why is that so important? Because it increases revenue, it moves people into higher value-added jobs, and it means that you have to import less food.
I think if Africans just look at the situation, they will see it is a challenge and an opportunity. Right now, African economies are importing net about $35 billion per year of food and that’s going to go up to over $100 billion in the next decade if nothing changes. That’s a challenge and an opportunity.
Why is it going up so much? Because you’re seeing a rising middle class, increasing urbanisation with demand for higher quality foods, more processed foods, etc.
Added to that, if you look at what Africa is exporting, it’s mostly raw materials -- corn, wheat, and then it’s importing back those things that have been transformed into foods that Africans consume and that means that Africa is exporting jobs. What does Africa need more than anything? Jobs.
So, investing in agriculture is pretty much a win-win and it’s a question of making it clear that this is the vehicle via which all other things that African governments want will happen.
We always have to remember agriculture because it is a fundamental way of moving into an industrialised society.
BI SSA: Let’s talk a bit about what the AfDB is doing to promote the growth of agriculture in Africa.
JB: So, we (at AfDB) take a value-chain approach and we go all the way from the basic production up to the processing and exporting. What we want to do is boost productivity, but what we really want to do is usher in a green revolution in Africa.
Other regions have had their green revolution. You’ve had one in Mexico, very famous. One in India, very famous. And those happened decades ago. We know that the technologies that exist today are even better than the ones they had at their disposal.
We have an effort called ‘Technologies for African Agricultural Transformation’ (TAAT) and there, we are working with all of the top research institutes working on all the different crops in order to decide on what are the ideal technologies to get to farmers, and get it to them at scale. So, we are working together with AGRA, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation IFAD, and many others. That’s at the basic level.
We also have initiatives around mechanisation and making sure we get the right machinery to the farmers, which is part of the piece. So then, what do you do once you have produced a lot more? Well, a big issue in Africa is things like warehousing. What do you do with post-harvest? So we have a whole effort around post-harvest loss and making sure that once you produce a lot of crops, you are able to store it properly and not lose much.
Then if you go beyond that, you get to the exciting part of processing. Our biggest effort there is called Staple Crops Processing Zones (SCPZ), which is all about taking the hard and soft infrastructure into the rural areas, addressing one of the biggest challenges of the day in Africa which is that young talented people are leaving rural areas in droves either to urban areas where they may not have as nice a life but maybe job opportunities. Or, unfortunately, maybe migrating abroad.
So, how do you keep them in the rural areas because you have a thriving economic activity going on? The idea is to bring in the hard and soft infrastructure into zones where you already have a lot of agricultural productivity and then bring the transformation and processing right there using some anchor investors.
We won’t be able to do it everywhere, but the idea is that it will have a demonstration effect. If you do it in key countries and key places in those countries, it will be an idea that will catch on and will work elsewhere. This is the sort of thing that drove the agro-industrial revolution in the United States and many other places.
BI SSA: Lastly, how do you incentivise young people to be more interested in agribusiness?
JB: It’s good that you raised that. So, we have a bank-wide effort called ENABLE Youth. That’s all about creating 25 million jobs and training 50 million people with better skills in 10 years. What we do is take young graduates from any field and train them on everything they need to know on how to start and run a successful agribusiness.
We are working with other institutions to give the ones with the best ideas seed funding. One of the biggest challenges facing young people who want to start businesses is not only that they have no collateral, they have no business track records. So, how do you get them that basic seed funding? And then if they do well, we can move them up the staircase and give them smaller loans and bring them into the financial markets in a more normal way. But at least you have to give them a leg up in the beginning.
All of this is about how we describe agriculture. Because young people, they don’t want to be farmers. I mean, some of them want to, but mostly not. So, we need to start talking about agriculture as a business, not as a way of life. The young people want to be agropreneurs. Not farmers, but agropreneurs.
If you go to Nigeria, you’ll see young people who’ve had good careers as lawyers, doctors, they did what mum and dad wanted, but deep down they want to do agribusiness. So, they leave their jobs and they start successful agribusinesses.
The way agriculture is talked about makes an impact on how young people see it. It’s all about agribusiness. Agribusiness is going to be a very exciting outlet for more lucrative jobs and jobs where people can express themselves more.
The question we need to answer is, how do we move people within agriculture but from things that are less interesting and into more lucrative jobs?
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