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The urgent need to develop African agriculture is hardly breaking news however current climate and environmental challenges have now pushed new priorities to the fore. Maintaining African smallholder farming needs to go hand in hand with soil conservation and getting local and regional governments to buy into projects. Agribusiness’s attitude to these issues is complex and it is torn between the need to get a return on its investment and a willingness to act in a sustainable manner.

This article was first published on the FARM Foundation Blog on 22 January 2018

There is no real need to go into details concerning the African demographic boom – especially in Sub-Saharan Africa – the figures speak for themselves: the Continent’s population is set to double over the next 40 years and this phenomenon will be accompanied by massive and rapid urbanisation. As things stand, African farmers will struggle to meet the resulting extra demand and the climate changes forecast in this part of the world will merely accentuate the problem. Despite concerted action by various different stakeholders there is a major risk of social upheaval, not only in Africa but in neighbouring regions as well, and that includes Europe.
It is therefore in everyone’s interest to join in combating poverty in this major region and to work towards sustainable development solutions for African farmers.

The stakeholders currently involved

Obviously, the role of governments varies but we can probably all agree that most countries live with non-mature government structures (within the meaning intended by Douglas North in “Violence and Social Orders”) that are fairly unsuited to developing stable agricultural policies. A lot of multinational agribusinesses have chosen to invest in Africa in spite of these circumstances. There are a number of reasons for this: Africa offers these businesses a big market and big development prospects. For some, investing alongside producers is a means of securing the raw materials they need into the long term and this includes the use of soil conservation measures.

Many operate within the scope of public-private partnerships (PPP) signed with governments. They are frequently organised as networks and work with foundations, producers’ organisations (POs), services firms, NGOs and banks with the backing of international organisations like the United Nations. A good description of this type of structure which has been used for around 15 years was recently provided by Roger Blein et al. in a report entitled “Growth hubs in West Africa: reality, impacts and challenges”.
POs have generally formed in the ag-industrial sector but in a lot of cases they encounter marketing and contractualisation difficulties. At the FARM conference organised on 24 November 2017 around the theme of contract farming in Africa, Paule Moustier of CIRAD, the French agricultural research body, clearly demonstrated how, despite the positive impacts of contractualisation, only 1% to 5% of African farmers actually operate within this type of relationship and subsistence farming is relatively untouched by such arrangements. The African representatives of the trading corporations present on the Continent all stress the need for contractual flexibility in order to deal with the sheer variability in the different market environments. It is also fairly obvious that such arrangements – which are so important in the West – continue to challenge traditional social structures in Africa and that they need to be adapted in consequence.

Although organisations that protect farmers’ interests took a long time to take root after decolonisation, they are now a familiar part of the landscape, working with governments, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the World Bank, etc. Yet there is still a huge amount of work to be done, especially in the whole area of training where resources are meagre but there is an overriding need to step up initiatives. This is a key issue in working towards sustainable development solutions for African agriculture.

“Agropoles” (also known as food technopoles) – another subject tackled at the FARM conference – are being touted as solutions by some countries. These government-sponsored projects are supported by the African Development Bank and certain countries boast numerous examples (Togo, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Senegal, etc.). Roger Blein has attempted to explain this choice of structure although obviously, there are a whole host of factors to be considered. A key focus emerges: in the current emergency food situation for example, certain governments may seek a fairly quick solution to boost its commercial farming sector. Companies then provide their expertise and gain market access in return. Many questions arise, especially regarding land access for local farmers and the level of government support to be provided to these types of investors. Also, agropoles do not yet have a proven track record in boosting agricultural output.

What role for corporations?

This excessively brief and incomplete overview of the players present in the African agriculture sector still shows that changes are afoot with the involvement of a whole host of stakeholders with non-convergent – and sometimes conflicting interests. Each forges their own strategy, for better or for worse. We need to focus on the factors to be taken into account if we are to partner sustainable development for African farming. In other words, what are the priority focuses in the strategy of a company that wants to invest in these countries but also wants to secure a return on its investment?

This is a complex issue and we cannot disregard all of the many problems related to major environmental challenges, to ineffectual public policy (both agricultural and otherwise), to the enduring importance of traditional social structures, to the impact of emerging “carbon-free” energy and new technologies, and to the confusion frequently caused by the involvement of multiple stakeholders. However, we do need to rank priorities to guide development initiatives in favour of African farmers and – at the risk of stating the obvious – we need to focus on two themes.
First soil conservation: a huge issue with major consequences in terms of agronomical practices. At this stage, we are well aware of the negative side-effects of “green revolutions” in certain countries: while they provided clear-cut solutions to strong societal expectations during a given period, we are now measuring the collateral damage – especially to soil – and it would be foolhardy to ignore this. But we shouldn’t kid ourselves either. While the intensification of African farming is a necessity, it will be no easy task. We will need to reintroduce a degree of complexity back into mindsets, particularly regarding production systems. But not all stakeholders are in favour and agricultural extension systems suffer from a lack of resources.
Another major issue relates to the buy-in of local and regional governments and local populations into development projects that concern them, including PPP-type arrangements. This is also a tricky objective. Obviously, it requires significant investment – not just in training but in expertise and project management as well.
Unless these two themes are addressed, we can’t really talk about sustainable development. However, for those businesses that do want to take the plunge, a strategic reflection based around CSR policy could provide a number of pointers for moving forward.