Africa's smallholder farmers not only have the potential to produce enough food for export – and thereby contribute to food security worldwide – but to help lead the way to robust growth and development across the continent. That is, if the right kinds of investments and policy approaches are taken to vastly improve their productivity through better access to technology, credit, transportation and markets.
The importance of farming as an income source in Africa was highlighted at this week's meeting of regional agricultural ministers and experts in Cape Town, which was organised by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (Ifad) and takes place just before the World Economic Forum on Africa, which begins on Wednesday .
Agricultural markets are changing. We no longer need to think exclusively in terms of export crops because new market opportunities are emerging on Africa's doorstep. As cities expand and incomes increase, people in urban areas are changing their eating habits and becoming consumers who want more meat, dairy products and vegetables, and they expect higher quality standards – we are seeing this across the continent.
In response to this demand, agricultural value chains are expanding and becoming better organised. These modern markets bring their own challenges for some smallholder farmers in terms of higher entry costs, but the potential opportunities cannot be overlooked. So, what needs to happen to make the most of these opportunities, and for smallholder agriculture to lead the way to economic growth and food security?
National governments and the international community need to reverse the longstanding neglect of rural development. There needs to be improved governance in rural areas, and policies that create a better economic environment for smallholder farmers to succeed and grow not only food but their businesses as well.
Rural infrastructure in Africa needs to be expanded and improved. Nearly a third of the rural population live more than five hours away from a market town, with fewer than 20% living within an hour of a market town. Only one in five Africans has access to a national electricity grid. Targeted investments in road-building and utility construction can go a long way towards improving farmers' capabilities and access to markets.
The rural environment must be made less risky – and people must be helped to better manage risk, in their agricultural production systems and their lives more broadly through access to information and innovative insurance, savings and credit services that help them grasp new economic opportunities.
Governments and their partners need to make investments in the education and skills of rural people so they can make the most of new opportunities to engage in agricultural markets or work in non-farm industries. This should include strengthening their collective capabilities – and particularly farmers' organisations – so that they can support each other in managing the risks they face, learn new techniques for improving their productivity and market their products.
Importantly, our investments need to recognise and address the major challenges and risks faced by rural people in Africa – such as the deterioration of the natural resource base, competition for land and water, and the effects of climate change on the rural landscape. Ifad's rural poverty report outlines how small farmers can be helped not only to become more productive, but to farm in a way that is more sustainable in terms of natural resources, and more resilient to climate change.
If we can create the conditions for poor rural people in Africa to move out of subsistence and into the marketplace – then we will have our best chance to transform Africa into a continent that not only feeds itself, but also plays a key role in feeding the world.
African Leaders Meet on Boosting Agriculture
The potential for African agriculture to help lead the way to economic growth and development on the continent is in the spotlight as heads of state, agriculture ministers and experts, and leaders from the private sector gather in Cape Town. They are there for the African launch of the International Fund for Agricultural Development’s Rural Poverty Report 2011.