The Wilson Quarterly has published a long essay of mine on Africa’s rural transformation. With roughly two-thirds of sub-Saharan Africans living in the countryside, the future of Africa is in the hands of farmers and their children. Stretching over 17 pages of this august journal, my article represents the work of several years — a synthesis of what I’ve learned from tromping through the African “bush,” courtesy of a few generous foundations, donors and individual patrons. Go read the article (and even look at the pictures, some of which I took). But if you can’t, the gist of my glass-half-full report on Africa’s future is the following:
Through farming more intensively and linking more tightly with cash buyers (ie, markets), small farmers in most of Africa are doing better than they have since the early 1970s. Helped by higher commodity prices and urbanization (freeing land for use by the most talented farmers), food output is outstripping population growth in most parts of Africa. That’s big news. The gains mainly come through greater effort by small and very-small farmers, supplemented by more enthusiasm from buyers (both within Africa and globally). More lasting improvements will come when these “brute-force” gains are reinforced by productivity improvements brought about by technological and infrastructural innovations consistent with market economics (ie, they must be sustainable). The African countryside will not become, say, Israel or the central valley of California overnight. Yet even modest expansion in use of irrigation, improved seeds and improved transport and storage of food will accelerate gains by small African farmers.Â And as these small farmers prosper, international agro-business will find more incentives to deepen nascent ties to these producers. Through the use of information technology and better management, global agro is finding ways of aggregating the output of very-small producers, thus promoting equity in rural Africa and avoiding the need for “industrial-scale” farming (ie, plantations).