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Employment in Africa: Think agriculture!

Why agriculture should be Africa’s top priority.

Comment | 29 January 2013
By Philippe Egger
Director of the ILO Bureau of Programming and Management
GENEVA (ILO News) - Economic growth in Africa is forecast to continue at a robust rate, slightly above the recent trend of 5 per cent a year. And, Africa is urbanizing fast, with an average of close to 40 per cent of the population living in cities.

As such, it may seem paradoxical to suggest that agriculture should be Africa’s number one priority, especially when it comes to employment. But there are very good reasons for this.

Over 60 per cent of Africa’s economically active population works in and lives from agriculture; over one third of total value-added comes from agriculture; and, surprisingly, Africa imports close to US$50 billion worth of food every year, mostly to feed its rapidly expanding urban population (see chart). This is equivalent to what Africa receives in official development aid, and over five times more than the amount invested in future economic growth by the African Development Bank.

The reality is that agriculture in Africa has been neglected by governments, international development lenders and policy advisers alike. This carries a high cost: Per capita food production has barely grown over the last 50 years, at a pace of 0.06 per cent a year. With the population rising at 2.6 per cent a year, food imports have increased at an annual rate of 3.4 per cent since 1980, with cereals accounting for the largest share. Africa receives close to half of the world’s total cereal food aid.

Food production and imports in Africa

Yields are comparatively low at an average of 1.3 tons per hectare of harvested land, less than half the world average. Yields have increased at an annual rate of just over 1 per cent, while the world average grew 2 per cent.

Putting agriculture first, what would it take?

Africa needs to focus on raising food output per unit of land among the large majority of small-holders. An “agriculture first” strategy - widely discussed in the 1970s - would raise much needed foreign exchange currently used to import food that should be grown in Africa; it would protect the continent from the vagaries of volatile food prices and it would raise incomes in rural areas, reducing poverty and raising demand to boost growth. This would provide more productive jobs for a significant share of Africa’s youth.

What would it take to raise output among small-holders? In 2003, the African Union adopted a plan for agriculture comprising wider use of fertilizer and sound water management techniques; support to rural infrastructure and market access; and agricultural research. These broad orientations require full attention and broad application.
Africa can learn from its own varied experiences, from the lower yields of Senegal or Sudan, to the higher yields of Malawi or Zambia.

Trade can play an important role. The priority must go to trade within Africa to raise exchanges between food surplus and deficit countries. At present, food imports are favoured from regions with large subsidies to producers, thus artificially depressing world prices.

Sustained and broad-based growth in Africa cannot take place without robust agricultural growth underpinning employment and incomes for the large majority of the employed population. Turning this agenda into reality is a major task for the next 10 to 20 years.