» Opportunity beckons for Africa’s agricultural sector
09.02.2016 - Natural Sciences Sector

Opportunity beckons for Africa’s agricultural sector

© atm2003 / Shutterstock.com Tea plantation in Rwanda.

On 1 February 2016, the Moroccan Office of Phosphates (Office chérifien des phosphates, OCP) inaugurated a new factory in Jorf Lasfar, 100 km south of Casablanca. OCP Director-General, Mostafa Terrab was reported by Le Monde Afrique(1) as saying that, ‘by 2017, OCP will be producing almost 12 million tonnes of fertilizer every year, making our group the world leader for this market.’ The new factory will focus on the African market. It is estimated that the continent currently consumes just 3% of the world’s fertilizer. ‘Africa needs to use more fertilizer,’ says Mr Terrab. ‘The challenge will be to achieve this in an effective and responsible manner.’

Although Africa remains highly dependent on agriculture, productivity tends to be low and there is little value addition. In Zambia, for instance, agriculture employs about 85% of the population but contributes just 10% of gross domestic product (GDP) and 5% of exports, mostly due to weak linkages with manufacturing.

Africa’s agricultural sector suffers from poor land management and low investment, according to the UNESCO Science Report: towards 2030. In Southern Africa, it is estimated that over three-quarters of land is degraded and soil erosion has been identified as the primary cause of declining agricultural production. ‘There has been a worrying drop in government funding for agricultural research and development (R&D),’ observes the report, which notes that, by 2010, only seven countries had reached the target fixed in the Maputo Declaration (2003) of devoting 10% of GDP to agriculture: Burkina Faso, Burundi, Ethiopia, Malawi, Mali, Senegal and Zambia. Like many African countries, all seven have rapidly growing populations, with growth rates ranging from 2.52% per year for Ethiopia to 3.26% for Zambia. Four have raised their overall research spending to some of the highest levels in sub-Saharan Africa: Ethiopia (0.61% of GDP in 2013), Malawi (1.06% of GDP in 2010), Mali (0.66% of GDP in 2010) and Senegal (0.54% of GDP in 2010).

Ethiopia and Malawi invest more in agriculture than any other African country: 21% and 28% of GDP respectively in 2010. They have enjoyed steady economic growth over the past decade but, with agriculture contributing 45% of GDP in Ethiopia and 27% in Malawi, the end of the commodities boom in 2013 has left them vulnerable. Tobacco accounts for half of Malawi’s exports and unroasted coffee for 40% of Ethiopia’s. Both countries are also vulnerable to drought, like many of their agrarian neighbours. Malawi has experienced below normal rainfall in recent years that has affected food security and Ethiopia is entering a period of severe drought.

Steps to modernize the economy

Most agrarian economies are conscious that achieving their ambition of becoming a lower or upper middle-income country within the next 10–20 years will entail improving productivity and adding value to agricultural produce through research. Ethiopia’s Growth and Transformation Plan for 2011–2015, for instance, prioritizes improving crop and livestock productivity and preserving soil and water; agro-processing is a priority sector for the ongoing Engineering Capacity-building Programme financed and implemented jointly by Ethiopia and Germany. Côte d’Ivoire’s National Development Plan for 2012–2015 foresees the establishment of three technopoles to promote innovation and the transformation of 50% of raw materials into value-added goods.

Several countries have set up innovation hubs or funds to support the agribusiness sector. This is the case of the Malawi Innovation Challenge Fund, for instance, which in 2014 provided its first matching grants of up to 50% to innovative business projects in agriculture and manufacturing, from a pool of US$ 8 million from the United Nations Development Programme and UK Department for International Development. Botswana’s agricultural hub has been fostering the diversification and commercialization of agriculture since 2008, as part of a broad strategy to reduce the country’s economic dependence on diamond mining. The Rwanda Innovation Endowment Fund (est. 2012) supports R&D to develop market-oriented products and processes in agriculture, manufacturing and information and communication technologies.

Agricultural research papers trail life sciences

Given the importance of agriculture for Africa, one might expect as many research papers to emerge from this field as from the medical or biological sciences. The UNESCO Science Report reveals, however, that agriculture not only consistently trails the life sciences for the volume of papers catalogued in the Web of Science but even occupies fourth place behind geosciences in countries with strong mining sectors; this is the case, for instance, of Burundi, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Eritrea, Gabon, Niger, Senegal, South Africa, Uganda and the United Republic of Tanzania.

A disaffection for agricultural studies

The modest output in agricultural sciences not only reflects low levels of investment but also a certain disaffection for this field of study. Agriculture attracted just 47 PhD students in Cameroon in 2010, compared to 241 for science, 236 for engineering and 467 for health sciences. Data are only available for a handful of African countries but, if we compare PhD students in Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Ghana, Mali and Niger, only Ethiopia (127 in 2010) and Ghana (132 in 2012) count more than 100 PhD candidates in agricultural sciences. The number of Burkinabé students enrolled in a bachelor’s or master’s degree in agricultural sciences has even shrunk, from 291 in 2007 to 67 in 2012. In Rwanda, 565 students were enrolled in agricultural sciences at the bachelor level in 2012 but none at the master’s and PhD levels.

In its review of Africa’s Science and Technology Consolidated Plan of Action (CPA, 2005–2014), a high-level panel of eminent scientists lamented the fact that young African researchers were reluctant to train in fields such as agricultural science which lacked popular appeal, considering that ‘the shortage of qualified personnel in such fields is a big challenge for the continent.’

Several governments have nevertheless set up agricultural universities recently. In 2012, Malawi established the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources, after delinking this faculty from the University of Malawi. Zimbabwe is setting up two universities with a focus on agricultural science, the Marondera and Monicaland State Universities. One of the three public universities set up by Senegal since 2013 specializes in agriculture. Moreover, a law passed in 2014 should help to foster public–private sector linkages in Senegal and thereby galvanize research. The law creates a governing board for universities and an obligation for half of board members to be external to the university, such as from the private sector.

More opportunities for scientific interaction across Africa

The current disaffection for agricultural studies is all the more disappointing, in that there are more opportunities for scientists to interact across the continent than ever before. Through the CPA’s African Biosciences Initiative, four subregional networks of centres of excellence have been established in Egypt, Kenya, Senegal and South Africa, as well as two complementary networks, Bio-Innovate and the African Biosafety Network of Expertise. Bio-innovate covers Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda and is funded by Sweden. It focuses on improving crop productivity, smallholder farmers’ resilience to climate change and on making the agro-processing industry more efficient. The African Biosafety Network of Expertise was set up in Burkina Faso in 2010 and is funded by the Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation.

That these centres should be so dependent on donor funding begs the question of their long-term sustainability. For the high-level panel of CPA reviewers, the failure to set up the planned African Science and Technology Fund was one of the ‘visible weaknesses’ in implementation of the CPA. At the time of its adoption in 2014, the CPA’s successor for the next decade, the Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa (STISA-2024) had not identified any specific funding mechanism for the strategy’s implementation, despite acknowledging that ‘it is urgent to set up’ such a fund.

The agricultural sciences are enjoying buoyant support from another quarter: the continent’s regional economic communities. In 2012, the West African Economic and Monetary Union designated 14 centres of excellence in the subregion for financial support over the next two years, including six focusing on agriculture. This project complements that of the World Bank, which has provided loans to 19 West African centres of excellence since 2014, five of which specialize in agriculture. One of these, the West Africa Centre for Crop Improvement at the University of Ghana, is receiving US$ 8 million from the World Bank for research and the training of crop breeders at PhD and MSc levels over 2014–2019. Meanwhile, the Inter-University Council for East Africa has been entrusted by the East African Community with the mission of developing a Common Higher Education Area by 2015.

A free trade zone formed by 14 of the 20 members of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) since 2000 has facilitated trade in the tea, sugar and tobacco sectors, in particular. This free trade zone was extended in June 2015 to include countries from the East African Community and Southern African Development Community. Efforts are under way across the continent to develop road and rail transportation and modernize ports.

Currently, intra-African trade represents just 12% of African trade, compared to about 55% in Asia and 70% in Europe. With 1 billion potential consumers across the continent, the challenge for Africa will be to improve productivity and diversify agricultural products in a sustainable manner, while removing the barriers to intra-African trade.

Source: adapted from UNESCO Science Report: towards 2030.
See the chapters on West Africa, East and Central Africa and Southern Africa

(1) Ait Akdim, Youssef (2016) Le géant marocain des phosphates se sacre roi des engrais. Le Monde Afrique, 2 February.

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