A new study says Africa has great potential to become a world player in the commercial farming industry.  That potential lies in a vast savannah that stretches through 25 countries.

The Guinea Savannah zone is about 600 million hectares of land snaking its way from Senegal, across the continent, and down to South Africa.  Most of that land is suitable for farming, but currently only about 10 percent of it is being used to grow crops.

Sleeping Giant

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Bank have released a study on the prospects for farming there called: Awakening Africa's Sleeping Giant.

Guy Evers, Africa Service Chief in the FAO Investment Center in Rome, says, "I would say the title is a little bit provocative. It's a way to explain or illustrate the fact that there is still a large amount of land available in Africa."

The study says Africa is well placed to be a global player in bulk commodity production. That's due to "rapid economic, population and urban growth providing diverse and ample domestic markets." It also cites improved domestic and foreign investment in agriculture and the use of new technologies.

"On that large piece of land, which has fairly good rainfall, you have about 400 million hectares, which have not yet been exploited and basically could be developed if the right ingredients, I could say, are being put in place in terms of infrastructure, taxation policy included," he says.

Size of farm not important

He says awakening Africa's agriculture potential does not only mean operating large-scale commercial farms.

"When you talk about the sleeping giant, I mean we are not talking only about large-scale farming, but also medium and small-scale farming or a combination of the three," he says.

Similar major agricultural programs have been successful in the Cerrado region of Brazil and northeast Thailand. The study says governments in those countries took large areas of unused land and made them productive through favorable economic policies, better infrastructure and political stability.

If successful on the continent, the study says a number of African countries could become major producers of cassava, cotton, maize, soya beans, sugar and rice. The crops could be sold domestically or abroad.

Evers says, however, that with such a proposed undertaking care must be given to the environment.

"Commercial farming?requires sustainable farming practices, which need sustainable land, soil and water management and a number of techniques, which would minimize the use of pesticides and also the development of so-called no-till farming, where basically there is no plowing anymore," he says.

Some studies show that repeated tilling can lower soil fertility and contribute to air and water pollution. No-till farming does require special and sometimes expensive equipment that can plant seeds without disturbing the ground very much. However, precautions may need to be taken regarding drainage.

Evers says, however, there is a wealth of experience from other countries to draw on regarding environmental protection.