The agriculture sector in Africa: are our leaders failing us?

By Dr Ralph Nordjo
Development Economist, Management Board Member of the Ghana Chamber of Agribusiness (GCA)

Each year, African political leaders gather to set an agenda for the transformation of the region. While efforts have been made, the region – as compared to the rest of the world – continues to record little economic growth and high levels of poverty.

More talk leads to more promises, but little gets done. Given that not all of the talks move the needle or make impact, it’s vital that our leaders double down on the most impactful strategic growth and transformational areas of our African economies.

A key sector for the continent’s economic growth and poverty reduction is agriculture. The sector will comprise an estimated market value of more than $1 trillion by 2030 according to African Development Bank President Dr Akinwumi Adesina. It employs more than half of the labour force and is the main source of livelihoods for most citizens.

For decades, from the years of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) right through to those of the African Union (AU), African leaders have initiated and implemented a plethora of agricultural policies. The main goal of these policies has been to increase crop production and productivity and ensure food security.

In light of this, the agricultural transformation agenda in most African countries has focused on increasing the use of fertiliser and adopting other agronomic practices to improve the health of the soil and deliver nutrients to crops and plants. Agricultural mechanisation and irrigation have also helped to increase agricultural production. However, this skewed approach – targeting limited value chain agriculture potential – has not really delivered much. 

So, what exactly has Africa gained over these six decades? Evidence shows that cereal yields in Africa still remain the lowest compared to other regions of the world. While the cereal yields from other regions or continents have increased by more than 200 percent in the past 60 years, Africa has only increased its yield by about 90 percent. 

In terms of food insecurity, approximately 60% of the people in Africa are either moderately or severely food insecure relative to the rest of the regions of the world. Also alarming is the number of people who are undernourished compared to other global regions. Why are we not fixing this, despite the abundance of resources available? 

A key sub-sector of agriculture is livestock production. In Africa, the contribution of this sector to agricultural GDP is estimated to range between 30 and 50%. However, there seems little or no attention paid to the livestock sector by most countries in Africa. 

This sector is dominated by poultry, and largely by chicken. But while chicken production in Africa has increased from 322,843 tonnes in 1962 to 7.81 million tonnes in 2022, it still does not meet demand. 

To deal with this shortfall, the region imports frozen chicken from countries such as Brazil, the European Union and the USA. Poultry imports to Sub-Saharan Africa were around 1.96 million tonnes in 2021 but are expected to increase to 2.54 million tonnes per year within the next decade. As a result of imports and dumping of chicken products, the once vibrant poultry industry in Ghana, for example, is on the verge of collapsing if not collapsed already. This contributes to explaining why Africa is yet to industrialise despite numerous policies and promises. 

African leaders must stop being naïve – we need to better address these challenges today in order to meet the demands and opportunities for tomorrow. 

One solution is for African leaders to establish an equivocal continental policy to demand that countries grow what they eat and eat what they grow, resulting in the minimisation of external imports from outside of the African continent. This policy could become a hallmark of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement and industrialisation policy.

Secondly, the continent must develop a comprehensive policy to invest in agricultural research and development. The returns on increasing funding for agricultural R&D have great impacts and potential to improve efficiency and food security, reduce the number of people who are malnourished, and ultimately lower the level of poverty through income generation. 

These are the best ways to get the continent on a path to optimising and growing its agricultural sector.