Africa’s Economy Is Rising: Now What Happens to Its Food?

Courtesy of the New York Times, a look at Africa, where farmers are vastly less productive than farmers elsewhere, a reality which needs to change in order for the continent to catch up economically:

For decades, the economies of Africa were the world’s economic laggards. They aren’t anymore. Over the last decade, Africa’s per capita income has grown at a rate nearly identical to that of the rest of the world.

It’s reasonable to imagine that the continent is in the early stages of a trajectory that could mimic that of Latin America or, more ambitiously, parts of Asia. With the world experiencing one of the greatest extended reductions in poverty on record, Africa has finally become part of the story. A middle class is beginning to develop in West Africa, from Ghana and Nigeria down to Angola. Some severely poor countries, like Ethiopia and Liberia, are at least making rapid progress.

Along with Africa’s economic stirrings come many of the same questions that have confronted the rest of the developing world. And some of the most important revolve around food.

Will the economic growth prove lasting and broad enough to end the continent’s tragic famines? Will those Africans who today live almost entirely on starches like cassava be able to switch to a more varied and nutritious diet? How will farmers on the continent likely to suffer some of the worst consequences of climate change cope with it — and how can Africa’s rising food production avoid accelerating that climate change?

One of the biggest players in this area has become the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. It is better known for its efforts to reduce disease in Africa, but it has also spent more than $3 billion in grants on African agriculture. On Thursday, Mr. and Ms. Gates will be in Brussels to mark the 15th anniversary of their foundation and to announce their goals for the next 15 years. Among them: financing programs to help Africa feed itself.

Africa’s farmers today are vastly less productive than farmers elsewhere — getting less than one-fifth the yield on corn that American farmers do, for instance. The foundation plans to finance more scientific research, new programs to disseminate that research (especially to female farmers, who particularly struggle), better food storage and more mobile phones, all with the goal of lifting African agriculture. A more efficient agricultural sector, the Gateses write in their annual letter about their work, “can drive massive poverty reduction and improve life across the continent.”

There is a fascinating tension in this focus on food. Worries about the availability of food stretch back centuries, not just in Africa. The crux of the essay that made Thomas Malthus famous, in 1798, argued that food production grew arithmetically while the population grew geometrically, dooming the human species to a grim future. The best-selling 1968 book, “The Population Bomb,” made a modern version of the same case.

The food pessimists, of course, could hardly have been more wrong.

It turns out that the fruits of human ingenuity grow geometrically, too – more than rapidly enough to keep pace with population growth. The share of income that societies devote to food has fallen sharply even as the world’s population has grown to 7.3 billion. As countries have become wealthier, they have rarely had trouble feeding themselves.

And the Gateses are hardly pessimists. “The lives of people in poor countries will improve faster in the next 15 years than at any other time in history,” they write.

When I spoke with them recently, I asked why food production needed to be among their big new goals. After all, private market economies have generally managed to deliver enough food, at least to countries on the rise. The same can’t be said about medical care or education, two of the foundation’s other main areas of emphasis.

“Even Simon’s view was that humans would have to change to innovate,” Mr. Gates said. Innovation, in other words, is not preordained. Indeed, it’s happened much more in some societies than in others. And it has happened, Mr. Gates was arguing, because people and institutions took steps to remove the barriers to progress.

With African agriculture, those barriers include roads that are too narrow to transport grain quickly, lack of knowledge about how crops fare best in some places and a dearth of basic information — on market prices, for instance — that hampers farmers. “They get taken by the middlemen,” Ms. Gates said. “If they have a cellphone, they’re informed.”

All of those problems are at least partly market failures, and they won’t automatically fix themselves. They are the kind of failures that governments or foundations can address.

It’s far too early to know whether the Gates Foundation’s attempts to do so in Africa will work. Some other experts have criticized the foundation, for example, for giving most of its money dedicated to African agriculture to groups outside of Africa — like European universities, which may not know what the continent really needs. The foundation replies that the bulk of the money is ultimately spent in Africa.

Either way, Africa today offers an argument against fatalism. Many parts of the affluent world — from Japan to the United States to Europe — may be in a bit of a funk, struggling with slow-growing incomes. And climate change, left unaddressed, presents grave dangers for everyone.

At the same time, much of the world is enjoying one of history’s most rapid increases in prosperity. Life expectancy has risen more than six years just since 1990. The world, to quote the title of a book by the economist Charles Kenny, is “Getting Better.” As Mr. Gates says: “The world is actually improving a lot. We’re trying to deliver both the good news on the progress and the possibility to do more.”

That possibility undoubtedly exists. But on many issues — in Africa and in the United States — doing more and doing better will require doing things differently. Progress isn’t inevitable just because it’s happened before.

This entry was posted on Saturday, January 24th, 2015 at 7:19 pm and is filed under Uncategorized.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site. 

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About This Blog And Its Author
Seeds Of A Revolution is committed to defining the disruptive geopolitics of the global Farms Race.  Due to the convergence of a growing world population, increased water scarcity, and a decrease in arable land & nutrient-rich soil, a spike of international investment interest in agricultural is inevitable and apt to bring a heretofore domestic industry into a truly global realm.  Whether this transition involves global land leases or acquisitions, the fundamental need for food & the protectionist feelings this need can give rise to is highly likely to cause such transactions to move quickly into the geopolitical realm.  It is this disruptive change, and the potential for a global farms race, that Seeds Of A Revolution tracks, analyzes, and forecasts.

Educated at Yale University (Bachelor of Arts - History) and Harvard (Master in Public Policy - International Development), Monty Simus has long held a keen interest in natural resource policy and the geopolitical implications of anticipated stresses in the areas of freshwater scarcity, biodiversity reserves & parks, and farm land.  Monty has lived, worked, and traveled in more than forty countries spanning Africa, China, western Europe, the Middle East, South America, and Southeast & Central Asia, and his personal interests comprise economic development, policy, investment, technology, natural resources, and the environment, with a particular focus on globalization’s impact upon these subject areas.  Monty writes about freshwater scarcity issues at and frontier investment markets at