Agriculture remains an important economic sector in the sub-Saharan Africa region. But when various countries start to craft their economic recovery plans following the devastation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic they will need to think differently about the sector.
A lot has been said about the need for basic infrastructures, such as roads, ports, and electricity but there are some basic things that, if executed properly, will help the recovery: much of agriculture depends on the effective (and timely) execution of the administrative and regulatory tasks of government: licenses, permits, regulations, enforcement, etc. These aspects have been constraining the growth and transformation of the agricultural sector for many years and require serious attention. Linked to this is a good land administration system, effective registration of title deeds/land rights in a well-functioning deeds office.
It is however also true that many sub-Saharan Africa countries still have weak property rights, which not only lead to lower levels of investment but also poor management of the land.
The economic recovery road from the pandemic presents an opportunity for various governments to explore available technologies (such as GPS systems and mapping and blockchain technology) that could help in the registration of land rights. This will help to solve disputes, contestation and also help with tradability of rights. This process can be piloted in agricultural land, and thereafter encourage private sector players to partner with the new landowners in further developments of the farms. The proper recording and confirmation of land rights will encourage individual entrepreneurs to invest in their farmland and thereby trigger the commercialization and growth of the agricultural sector. There are examples of technologies that various countries could use such as the use of drones in India, and aerial photography in Rwanda. This would also help change the troubling statistics which highlight that roughly 90% of rural land in Africa is not formally documented.
From a biotechnology perspective, and to date, South Africa is the only country in sub-Saharan Africa that has embraced the use and potential of biotechnology. This is primarily through South Africa being the only country that has adopted the use of genetically engineered cotton, maize and soybean seeds, joining the likes of the United States, Brazil and Argentina, amongst others. In these countries, the use of the genetically engineered seeds has seen lower insecticide use, more environmentally friendly tillage practises and crop yields improvement over the years, as illustrated in a research paper by agricultural economists, Graham Brookes and Peter Barfoot.
There is also compelling evidence of the increase in yields within the sub-Saharan Africa region. Consider South Africa, which produces about 16% of sub-Saharan Africa maize, according to the International Grains Council, utilising a relatively small area of an average of 2.5 million hectares since 2010. In contrast, countries such as Nigeria planted 6.5 million hectares in the same production season but only harvested 11.0 million tonnes of maize, which equates to 15% of the sub-Saharan region’s maize output. Irrigation has only been an added factor in South Africa, but not to a large extent as only 10% of the country’s maize is irrigated, with 90% being rainfed as in the other sub-Saharan Africa countries.
South Africa began planting genetically engineered maize seeds in the 2001/02 season. Before its introduction, average maize yields were around 2.4 tonnes per hectare, and that has now increased to an average of 5.9 tonnes per hectare as of the 2019/20 production season. Meanwhile, the sub-Saharan Africa region’s maize yields remain negligible, averaging below 2.0 tonnes per hectare. While yields are also influenced by improved germplasm (enabled by non-GM biotechnology), improved low and no-till production methods (facilitated through herbicide-tolerant GM technology), other benefits include labour savings, reduced insecticide use, and improved weed and pest control. These labour-saving benefits, also for small-scale livelihood farmers, were also observed in a research study in the KwaZulu Natal province of South Africa.
With agriculture currently making up an estimated 23% of the sub-Saharan Africa economies, while some remain net importers of food and agricultural products, a concerted focus on this sector as part of an economic recovery plan for the region is justified. This would also have positive spin-offs to curb the growing hunger in the region, specifically in countries such as Zimbabwe. Other countries like Kenya and Nigeria that are increasingly field-testing genetically engineered crops should accelerate the process, and when it meets their scientific standards, should embark on commercialisation as part of the recovery process from the economic slump caused by the pandemic. Each country will have their domestic regulatory process which safeguards consumers and farmers, but these need not be too prohibitive to the extent of disadvantaging the very same farmers it is intended to protect. A case in point is Zimbabwe, where the importation of the genetically engineered maize has recently been permitted, yet, planting by domestic farmers remains prohibited.
In sum, African governments should have a fresh relook at agriculture, which involves embracing technology (information technology, mechanical and biotechnology) and also private-sector partnerships. There needs to be also confidence in the citizenry to manage their land parcels. This will involve the granting of tradable long-term leases in various African countries. And in the case of better seeds, the evidence from South Africa is there for many countries to observe and learn.
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