Earlier this week I had the chance to talk with Kai Ryssdal, host of the Marketplace radio program, about African agriculture on the eve of President Bush’s visit to five African countries. To listen to my commentary, go to the program’s site. Or read the Marketplace transcript below:
KAI RYSSDAL: The president may or may not be leaving for Africa tomorrow. He said today he’s going to wait and see what Congress does on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Bill. The House and Senate have passed distinctly different versions of the warrantless wiretapping program. If and when he does make the trip, he’ll see what some experts are calling an agricultural revival on the continent. G. Pascal Zachary covered Africa for many years for the Wall Street Journal. Mr. Zachary, where’s the president going to see this playing out?
G. PASCAL ZACHARY: Well, there’s quite a few in East and West Africa in particular, countries like Nigeria, the most populist in Africa, and Uganda, are producing increases in food that are greater than population growth. They’re exporting food. They’re beginning to reduce reliance on food imports and farmer incomes are rising in many African countries.
RYSSDAL: How are they doing, though? Increasing those yields. Is it traditional Western agro business or is it something else that they’ve hit upon?
ZACHARY: It’s a combination. I think the aid donors have realized that the key is not just giving better seeds to countries in Africa, but finding them buyers. So in Malawi this past year, farmers made record incomes in part because there were buyers to buy all that stuff. And farmers have shown themselves to be pretty darn responsive to having customers.
RYSSDAL: Are we at a point yet where they’re competing with American farmers?
ZACHARY: Yeah, actually it’s true. In Nigeria and in Uganda there are growing outputs of rice and that’s reducing the imports of American rice. In many parts of the United States you can buy fish that comes directly from the Nile called Nile perch. It’s airlifted into the United States. I saw flowers barcoded in the Kampala airport ready to go on Kroger’s shelves.
RYSSDAL: Does that production for the export market hurt local African consumers? Are they having to pay higher prices?
ZACHARY: No, just the opposite is happening, paradoxically. As the capacity of these small holders — and they’re almost all small holders of two, three, five acres — as their capacity improves, they’re producing more for the local market as well. So some of the differentiation is around quality. So the higher quality Arabica goes for export. Higher quality maize may go for selling across the border, but there’s more food all the way around.
RYSSDAL: But things, obviously, are not perfect in Africa. I mean you have extreme poverty, regional conflict, there’s climate change. There’s a lot that farmers have to worry about.
ZACHARY: No question. And what we see in Kenya, one of the agricultural powerhouses of Africa, a country that has been sending hundreds of millions of dollars worth of food a year to Europe, obviously the breakdown in their political stability is adversely affecting these farmers. In a lot of ways it underscores the need for political stability in these countries for farmers to prosper.
RYSSDAL: What does it look like when you go out to a farm in Africa somewhere? I mean does it look like a traditional big business operation?
ZACHARY: No it looks more like Ireland of the 1930’s or 19th century America; Very small farms, there are almost no tractors, some farm animals, no electricity, but the bright spot on the horizen is the mobile phone. Almost all parts of rural Africa now have some mobile phone service and it’s created a great sense for the farmers of reality, of what urban markets are like. It helps them sell their products and makes it easier even for aid donors to reach them.
RYSSDAL: Mr. Zachary, thank you so much for your time.
ZACHARY: Oh, thank you very much.