Last week, the major aid agencies launched a campaign in support of the appalling famine in parts of East Africa. The timing of the press coverage happened to coincide, for me, with a conference in Dar called ‘Commercial Farm Africa’.
It felt slightly surreal to be, on the one hand, looking at horrific pictures coming out of Somalia, South Sudan and elsewhere; but to then later in the day be sitting through presenter after presenter describing a booming agricultural sector across the continent.
1 in every 2 farmers in the world resides in Africa, and the continent is the world’s number 1 or 2 producer of many agricultural products (cocoa beans, cashews, sesame seeds, groundnuts, coffee, cotton). It exports $42.7bn of agricultural output annually. And today’s production is nothing compared to the potential: currently Sub-Saharan Africa is producing only about 25% of what it could produce, if yields were improved to levels seen elsewhere in the world.
And so this was a key focus of the conference: the enormous yield improvements that can be achieved through improved farming practices, good water management, access to finance and higher-skilled labour. Get these right, and Africa has the highest growth potential of any agricultural sector in the world.
We heard from small firms working with groups of smallholders growing cashews and cassava, through to huge enterprises farming thousands of acre plantations of rice, tea or coffee. We saw how technology (smartphone apps and satellite imagery) is enabling ‘precision farming’, allowing even the most remote farmer to be in contact with agronomists and technical experts. And we saw how access to finance, mechanisation and irrigation tools can dramatically increase output. The overwhelming sentiment was one of positivity and excitement for the future.
Personally, I found it uplifting; an antidote to the depressing media reports. Not that I am for a moment lessening the significance of what’s been happening in some regions these past few months: It’s a desperate situation, and the aid effort is critical. But I’m more conscious now than ever, that this is not the whole story.
All too often, our image of Africa extends no further than the pictures of parched landscapes, famine and disease. We’re conditioned to immediately feel sympathy and pity. It’s understandable, given the coverage, but it can actually be pretty demeaning to those on the receiving end. If you’re a sophisticated and innovative farmer in Tanzania, or a successful tech entrepreneur in Kenya, you want to be recognised and treated as an equal, not feel ‘pitied’.
So two things it’s made me think. Firstly, perhaps we all need to swap some of our pity for a bit of anger. As David Lammy so eloquently argued in last weekend’s Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/mar/24/africa-comic-relief), there are reasons for the famines and suffering. It’s not just ‘because it’s Africa’; it’s due to failures in addressing the underlying drivers. The failure to establish a fair playing field in international trade, with proper access to markets, fair tariffs, and a fair share of the value chain for the producers themselves. And the failure to eradicate conflict, corruption and poor governance. We should be holding our own governments to account on how they are contributing on these issues.
Secondly, I’m personally going to try to be better at sharing some of that other Africa that I’m having the privilege to see: the fertile plains, the lush forests, the high, cool plateaux, the well-stocked lakes and stunning coastlines, all feeding into teeming market-towns crammed with a wealth of fresh produce. Even more importantly, the people: the diversity across the different nations and tribes, the energy, the passion, the humour, and the dignity.
Because if my recent experiences here have taught me anything, it’s that we are missing out enormously by failing to recognise how much this beautiful and exciting continent offers, and the massive potential it has to contribute to all our futures.