msafiri’s business columnist nkem ifejika takes a lofty view on the underutilisation of African land
There’s a game I like to play when I go to the supermarket in any European country. As I walk around the fruit aisles I pick the fruit up and check out the labelling just to see where it’s come from. The exercise is always with the hope of seeing some African produce on the shelves. I’ve come across pineapples from Ghana and the Ivory Coast, flowers from Kenya, oranges from South Africa. This always gladdens my heart – even though I’ve never come across anything from Nigeria.
Despite the speedy migration to cities, two-thirds of Africans still live and work in rural areas. But according to the International Labour Organisation only 17 per cent of our collective GDP comes from agriculture. To make matters worse, much of what there is is subsistence farming, catering for personal and local needs. Mechanised procedures are not as common as they should be, fertiliser is often expensive and misused, and some farming methods are plain outdated. Those statistics highlight the problem. Africa isn’t getting enough value from its farming.
Another game I like to play when I travel is to look at the land we’re flying above. You can usually tell the development of a country’s farming economy from the striations and demarcations on the ground. Land that’s ready for cultivation, or on which crops are being grown, is obvious from the sky. Land on which nothing is being done is also easy to spot. Granted some of this will be unsuitable, or reserved land. Europe is manicured, prim, and dense with structure. The continent with the greatest amount of wild land appears to be Africa.
Fly across the continent and you’ll see vast spaces of land with nothing happening on it. The country that appears to have put its land to the greatest use is South Africa, and this is reflected in its status as a global player in producing fruit and vegetables. Sixty per cent of the world’s uncultivated arable land lies within the continent of Africa. This is a tragic underutilisation, considering the needs of our people and of the world at large.
However, as always, the problems of the continent are also its opportunities. Most Africans are no more than three or four generations removed from people who made a living through farming. It’d be a sweet irony to return to those roots. We’d be feeding ourselves and feeding the world. But what’s best about agriculture is that it creates jobs. If industrialised farming by conglomerates isn’t your cup of tea, farming collectives are an alternative. And farming isn’t like most technologies of extraction where jobs really aren’t that many. It turns out that human beings are still better than machines at figuring out if a strawberry should go in the basket or go in the rotten pile.
This isn’t the most secret, hidden opportunity. Companies from India, South Korea and the UAE, to name just a few, have already been buying up large tracts of African land to secure their future, and also because they recognise its value. Africans themselves mustn’t be left behind in their own backyard.