West African soil has become a contested commodity on the global market as countries compete for land to ensure food security. Meanwhile, the region itself still awaits its green revolution.
For years now food prices have been on the rise – as has global population, heading straight for the 9 billion mark in 2050. The issue of food security is, thus, high up on the agenda around the world. National government try to address the challenges posed by the interaction of changing demographics, finite natural resources, and the global economy.
The January issue of the West Africa Trends Newsletter by the African Center for Economic Transformation offers some very interesting insights into how this situation plays out in West Africa. What we observe there is a new global rush – neither for gold, nor for oil, but for land. Both foreign governments and private investors compete fiercely for each acre of arable land.
The latter expect high returns on agricultural investment due to rising commodity prices; the former want to secure their food supply. In particular, it is Middle Eastern and Asian countries with rapidly growing populations and limited arable land that are leasing soil at great scale – Libya has invested in Mali, Qatar and India in Ghana; the Bangladesh Foreign Ministry is currently looking into deals in Liberia, Ghana, Senegal, and Ivory Coast.
On first hearing, it sounds rather cynical that a continent still fighting hunger and poverty should now grow food for others. And indeed, the land lease trend has triggered mixed responses. Some fear that the local population might lose their land as local governments and foreigners make secret deals. Libya’s lease of 250.000 acres in Mali, for instance, caused international criticism because villagers were apparently displaced from their homes. And from Ghana we hear that entire villages have lost much of their land in badly structured deals with foreign investors.
African governments often respond to such criticism by pointing to large areas of fallow land that neither local farmers nor the state have the means to develop. The potential is there but too few tap it. Indeed, a recent study by the consultancy company McKinsey shows that agriculture could be the engine of growth and development for West Africa. It could generate US$ 860 billion by 2030 and additionally US$ 35 billion and US$ 239 billion through agricultural business and processing respectively.
A green revolution in West Africa similar to those in Asia and Latin America, however, also depends on how the region reacts to the challenges posed by the use of natural resources and demographic trends, such as urbanisation and a persistent youth bulge.
About 60 percent of the West African population is today under the age of 20 and, as another interesting article in this issue argues, only few of them are aiming for a career in farming, despite high unemployment rates. This development hits particularly hard on Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast and Ghana. Each country has now launched programmes to foster youth engagement. In Ghana, the Youth in Agriculture Programme (YAP) has recruited around 8000 young people to cultivate over 3000 hectares of maize, nearly 7000 hectares of rice and 4000 hectares of soybean. And these initiatives literally seem to bear fruit as recent increases in food production have indeed been attributed to the programme.
So the political will to tap the existing potential for growth in agriculture and to boost productivity in West Africa seems to be there. Governments in the region across the continent have signed the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP), committing them to spend at least 10 percent of their budgets on agriculture. The programme aims for at least 6 percent annual growth in food production by 2015 through more R&D, wider dissemination of technology as well as better food supply chains and infrastructure.
However, the attainment of this goal, depends also on West Africa’s ability to make successful deals with foreign entities which go beyond selling off land in order to increase revenue. On the global market there is another commodity that determines how well a country is able to deal with the challenges posed by the use of natural resources, demographic changes and globalization. It’s knowledge.
West Africa might be able to benefit from experiences of other countries, notably China and Brazil. Over the last decades, these two countries have gone through agrarian revolutions themselves and demonstrate two alternative paths for development: China improved productivity through focusing efforts on small scale farmers, while Brazil targeted large areas of hitherto uncultivated land. And these two emerging powers are both keen on increasing their engagement in Africa through, among other things, boosting the agricultural sector of the continent.
The China-Africa Agricultural Forum, for instance, has been established to facilitate knowledge transfer through demonstration farms and training of experts. The Chinese government is also focusing on rice projects in Liberia and Guinea where the rice consumption is constantly growing.
The Brazilian Agricultural Research Institute Embrapa has opened an office in Accra and is working in various West African countries. The Brazilian know-how is of particular interest to West Africa as both are tropical regions. Among other things, Embrapa is developing a rice value chain in Senegal and runs a cotton development project involving Mali, Burkina Faso, and Benin. The institute is also about to get commissioned by Ghana for the development of a foresty plantation and biofuels.