Africa's agricultural sector has enormous scope for development, which would benefit both the continent's economy and its people. A recent report from the African Development Bank Group has noted that advancements in agriculture would have a direct and positive effect on poverty. "The development impact of agricultural productivity growth for the African region is hard to over-emphasize," the authors wrote.
Continent-wide, agriculture is on course to create 8 million stable jobs in the decade to 2020 but could add 6 million more by expanding large-scale commercial farming onto uncultivated land. Africa has nearly 600 million hectares of uncultivated arable land, about 60 percent of the global total. Developing the agriculture sector in Africa requires a joint effort from the public and private sector - an example shown by the Green Morocco Plan, which has committed to making agriculture a primary area of growth in the next 10-15 years. In Morocco alone, 4 million people are employed in the sector, and 80 percent of its 14 million rural inhabitants depend on the sector's revenues.
There are a number of reasons why farming is key. First of all, the efficient production of food would help to lessen the longstanding issue of food insecurity - despite rising prosperity, one third of the population in Sub-Saharan Africa is undernourished. It would also improve the economy in a region where 50 percent of the population is directly involved in agriculture.
Simply put, a well functional farming sector is a central requirement for the continent's transformation.
The factors that have been holding farmers back are similar to those that threaten other types of growth in Africa. Infrastructure and transport are in many cases quite poor, resulting in the losses of huge amounts of produce. Inadequate road networks, as well as a lack of irrigation technology and poor storage facilities, all hinder farmers who are already struggling (small farm-holders comprise 73 percent of the rural population). Because storage facilities fail to protect crops from pests, between 35 and 50 percent of fruit and vegetables regularly spoil, and 15 to 25 percent of grains. In dollar terms, this is stark: Sub-Saharan Africa loses $4 billion of its grain harvest every year.
One group that deserves particular attention are women farmers, who play a vital role in food production in many African countries: in Benin, women carry out 60 to 80 percent of agricultural work, while in Congo female farmers produce more than 80 percent of food crops. These figures are remarkable and show how important it is to invest in women. Fortunately, many projects are doing so, by offering various kinds of support to African women farmers including training and microfinance loans.
There are other ways in which life could be made easier for the people who work in agriculture. Public private partnerships could be forged to build and improve roads and irrigation, sharing the responsibilities for projects between governments and the private sector, and bringing in new expertise. The African Union has created the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme, which aims to reform agricultural practices, develop environmentally sound production and establish an annual growth rate in agriculture of 6 percent by 2015. Increasingly, too, private sector investment in African agriculture is taking place.
Improving Africa's farming sector would have multiple positive outcomes for African people. As change continues to occur across the African continent, it will be exciting to see this potential come to fruition.