African agriculture needs trade not aid

Aid to trade_Africa Panos.jpg
Copyright: Jenny Matthews / Panos

Speed read

  • Economic growth — not tech or research — is what really improves food security
  • But agricultural aid too often breeds dependency, not profitability
  • Donor funds should help African farming become profitable and keep youth in rural areas

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Food security needs Africa to move from aid-dependent fixes to profitable trade-driven agriculture, says David Bennett.

SciDev.Net’s recent Spotlight Ensuring food security for the future featured a number of first-rate articles from various viewpoints. Yet there’s one viewpoint sorely lacking: on the economy — and related to this, the role of aid.

Too often people think food security can be achieved by a combination of long term research and short term low-tech initiatives. These depend on donor funding, whether from foreign governments — either directly or via their support for research — or from charitable foundations or NGOs. 

But for any solution to food security to be truly sustainable, people have to move from depending on aid to depending on trade. That is the elephant in the room when it comes to Africa — clearly evident but all too frequently hidden away and not spoken about. 

Aid undermines

The issue is not new. In Africa the tide of aid money, however well-intentioned, has only promoted corruption in government and dependence among citizens. Dambisa Moyo, Zambian economist and former head of economic research and strategy for Sub-Saharan Africa at Goldman Sachs, has drawn a contrast with such countries as Argentina and Brazil, where a policy of investment has worked to grow economies. [1]

Many hundreds of millions of poor smallholder farmers are hungry because they cannot grow enough food for themselves and their families, or make enough money from selling what they do produce.

Growing enough food needs money — for better seeds and fertiliser, a water pump to irrigate the crop and a bike to take it to market, a radio or a mobile phone to find out about crop prices and cultivation information, and so on.
So it comes down to the economy. And that means moving from donor-dependency to trade-based self-sufficiency and self-reliance — which is what these many poor and hungry people say they want anyway!
A Harvard University study led by Professor Calestous Juma showed that Africa could feed itself by making the transition to economic self-sufficiency. “African agriculture is at the crossroads”, said Juma. “Africa is starting to focus on agricultural innovation as its new engine for regional trade and prosperity.” [2]

Investment breeds success

Some African economies are now amongst the fastest growing in the world. The Economist recently cited an International Monetary Fund study showing that six countries — Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda — had a GDP growth of at least five per cent on average from 1995 to 2010. [3] The article made the point that these countries have not relied on the resource and investment boom driven by China. They have achieved growth by controlling public finances, curbing inflation and, crucially, improving the climate for entrepreneurs and small businesses by sweeping away price controls and state monopolies. This approach in turn attracts further inward investment for economic development in all sectors including agriculture — investments in the form of grants or cheap loans and, importantly, investments from the African diaspora.  

Ageing agriculture

There is, though, a massive conundrum facing African farming: urbanisation and the flight of young people from the countryside to the cities. This cannot be ignored. Half of all Africans are under 20 years old, and more than half of all global population growth between now and 2050 is expected to occur in Africa, more than doubling the continent’s population.

As Margaret Karembu, Director of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications AfriCenter graphically describes it: “Migration of young people from rural to urban areas has left food production in the hands of their elderly parents, most of whom are incapable to adjust to modern high-tech farming systems. The status quo has only served to further demotivate the youth as farming is portrayed as a punitive, inferior and non-profitable enterprise.” [4]

A fundamental change in the mindsets of African youths is needed, so they view themselves as key players in the food production chain. This is possible if farming becomes profitable, and if supportive infrastructure is provided that recognises agriculture as a cornerstone of the modern African economy and society.   

Support self-sufficient profitability 

For this to happen, Africa needs to overcome ‘the donor-dependency syndrome’. Top-down funding and hand-out donations are short-term solutions with consequences including an inability to establish longer-term planning. The result is depressingly common and predictable. Such aid creates, encourages and perpetuates a culture tailored to, and indeed expert in, obtaining funding and spending it in dependent fashion. So it distracts and distorts efforts for self-sufficiency. Donors need to fund initiatives that really support people in achieving independence and self-reliance. This includes effective agricultural extension services that provide up-to-date, practical information to farmers — especially by women for women. Farmers need information on new seed varieties, how to grow these in local conditions, and how to market the crop. Farmers need demonstration farms that show advances in plant breeding and agriculture, and networks that reach small-holders. And they need micro-financing and credit unions to buy new seeds, fertiliser plus other necessities.
Donor funding should also be channeled into business advice and capital to help small businesses and ‘spin-out’ firms from universities and research institutions. This help is crucial for a truly sustainable agricultural economy in which small businesses reach financial profitability that attracts further investment from other sources.
The elephant in the room must lead the big parade out from aid to trade in Africa.
David Bennett is a senior member of St Edmund’s College, Cambridge, UK and co-leader of the Biosciences for Farming in Africa programme funded by the independent John Templeton Foundation and two Cambridge University-based foundations. He can be contacted at [email protected]


[1] Moyo, D. Dead Aid: Why Aid Makes Things Worse and How There Is Another Way for Africa. (Penguin Books, 2010)
[2] Africa Can Feed Itself in a Generation, Experts Say (Science Daily, 3 December 2010)
[3] Free Exchange │No need to dig (The Economist, 2 November 2013)
[4] Karembu, M. Preparing youth for high-tech agriculture in Heap, B. and Bennett, D. (eds.) Insights – Africa’s future … can biosciences contribute? (Banson, Cambridge UK, 2013)