When you think agriculture in Africa, “star-studded” probably isn’t the first adjective that springs to mind. So you can imagine my surprise when I arrived in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in January for the African Union Summit’s launch of the Year of Agriculture and Food Security and discovered that the program included names like Nigerian hip hop artist D’banj and footballer Yaya Touré. Not only did their participation make things more exciting, but it was an encouraging sign that there’s a new spotlight on African agriculture. This week, in Nigeria, D’banj is at it again- this time with eighteen of Africa’s biggest musicians- literally singing the praises of Africa’s farmers. Farmers make up 70 percent of Africa’s workforce. They’re the foundation of Africa’s economy. But because so many farmers are living in poverty, they’re often seen as victims of Africa’s problems rather than catalysts of its solutions. The truth is that these farmers hold enormous potential to drive Africa’s economic growth and reshape the future of the entire continent.
When I travel throughout Africa, I sometimes hear people claim that agriculture is an outdated way of life, and certainly not the key to the continent’s future. But a closer look at the data actually suggests that this is a myth—and it is agriculture that will provide Africa’s best shot for turning a relentless cycle of poverty into a virtuous cycle of development.
The truth is that these farmers hold enormous potential to drive Africa’s economic growth and reshape the future of the entire continent.
Research shows that growth in agriculture is actually more effective at reducing poverty in sub-Saharan Africa than growth in other sectors. The reason for this is simple: If African farmers have access to innovative tools and information needed to grow more crops and the means to get them to market, millions of families can increase their income, send their children to school, and live better lives. Africa’s economy depends on farmers, so when farmers’ income increases, it stimulates growth in other sectors, too.
In 2003, African leaders gathered in Maputo, Mozambique and committed to investing 10 percent of their national budgets on agriculture, achieving at least 6 percent agricultural growth, and adopting effective agricultural development policies by 2013. As a result of these commitments, 30 countries now have formal national agriculture and food security investment plans. Over the last decade, average government spending on agriculture has nearly doubled, and Africa has built an effective framework for strengthening nutrition and food security.
Countries that have invested significantly in agriculture are reaping enormous returns. Seven countries—Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Guinea, Malawi, Mali, Niger and Senegal—consistently expended 10 percent of their budget on agriculture between 2003 and 2010. Ghana, Madagascar and Zambia followed close behind, averaging 9 percent. And in significant part because these investments are strong drivers of growth and poverty reduction, most of these countries are now on track to meet the UN’s top MDG – to cut the proportion of people in extreme poverty in half by 2015.
Yet for all the progress we’ve seen, there is still a long way to go. Less than one fifth of African countries have met the targets agreed to in Maputo. Average public expenditure on agricultural development has barely exceeded 6 percent. Too many opportunities to break the cycle of poverty are being missed.
For the Year of Agriculture and Food Security to be a success, it must be a year of action. This June, African leaders will gather to review the Maputo Declaration and set the guidelines for the next decade of agricultural policy. If they agree to implement the promises made in Maputo, agricultural investments can lift tens of millions of Africans out of poverty by 2024, and the Year of Agriculture and Food Security will be remembered as a crucial turning point for nations across the continent.
What I’ve heard talking with African farmers is that they are ready and willing to be the engines driving Africa’s growth. The first step, they say, is for governments to recognize them as partners in economic development, with access to the same services as other businesses, such as insurance, credit and market access. Farmers also tell me that it’s important to educate Africans of all ages about the importance of farming and the crucial role farmers play in Africa’s future.
When stars like Femi Kuti, Tiken, and Vusi Nova are making music videos about agriculture and declaring as they did this week in Nigeria that “farming is cool,” it’s clear that the conversation has already begun to change. Farmers have a new set of allies who are using everything from petitions to comic strips to create a buzz around the Year of Agriculture and Food Security and the opportunities it presents for all Africans. As African leaders prepare to set the agricultural agenda for the next decade, it’s crucial that they hear from as many voices as possible. After all, the Maputo commitments were more than just a promise to farmers; they were a promise to everyone.