JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA - As Africa grapples with a severe drought, and famine threatens millions of people, experts at the World Economic Forum on Africa this week in the South African city of Durban say food security needs to be a major part of discussions on advancing the continent economically.
The annual World Economic Forum in Switzerland is usually a high-powered event, but at this week’s Africa meeting of the international organization, the continent’s big players are welcoming the humble farmer, now known as the “agripreneur.”
Agricultural economist Paul Makube, with South Africa’s First National Bank, told VOA it makes sense to talk about farming when discussing building competitive markets, and boosting innovation and technology.
“For business to prosper, you need a situation where there is stability, and in terms of food supply, and also production, for the various regions of Southern Africa and Africa as a whole,” he said.
Economists and agricultural experts say, Africa’s current food crisis cannot be blamed solely on a drought that has devastated large swaths of the continent. Drought, along with serious conflict, has doomed millions of people to dire hunger in Somalia, South Sudan and the Lake Chad Basin of West Africa. But, experts say, there are serious problems in African farming — mainly the inability of subsistence farmers to make the leap into making a profit.
Their obstacles include a lack of infrastructure to get goods to markets, competition from cheap imported food, government policies that do not offer enough support, unavailability of farmers’ insurance, and limited access to technology.
The Grow Africa partnership works to increase private sector investment in agriculture, and its executive director, William Asiko, said he has seen the success of farming cooperatives in his native Kenya.
“Supporting smallholder commercial farmers has got much more benefit for countries, certainly it has worked in East Africa, where you have a lot of subsistence farming and you are now producing surplus with all the work that has been done with productivity. It is about making sure the cooperative system is working well so that farmers can aggregate their produce, get a better price at the market, and then working with processors and making sure the policies are in place for them to invest and work with these farmers,” he said.
And the problem is demographic, said Birju Patel of the South Africa-based Export Trading Group.
“The average age of small-scale farmers in Africa is between 60 to 65 years. That is retirement age for everyone in this room, right? Now, how do you engage the youth to get involved in farming? So that is the big challenge for us now. And, obviously moving ahead with how the rest of the world is progressing, we feel technology is going to play a big part in that,” said Patel.
Growing Africa’s next crop of agripreneurs will not be easy, experts say. It will take major investments in money, time, and attention, but they say the fruits of this labor are necessary to feed this continent’s economic growth.