Sometimes it seems as though Adam’s curse, which promises mankind a harvest of thorns and thistles, applies only to African farmers. The southern part of the continent is in the teeth of a drought, which has been blamed on El Niño. The weather has been even worse in northern Ethiopia, where crops are shrivelling and cows are dying. But droughts, unlike biblical curses, end eventually. El Niño does not change the fundamental, remarkable fact about farming in sub-Saharan Africa: it is rapidly getting better.
The post-war green revolution that transformed Asia seemed to have bypassed Africa. But between 2000 and 2014 grain production tripled in countries as far-flung as Ethiopia, Mali and Zambia. Rwanda did even better. Farming remains precarious in a continent with variable weather and little irrigated land. But when disaster hits, farmers nowadays have a bigger cushion.
African countries are on the whole more peaceful and better run than they were. Farmers are no longer forced into disastrous socialist collectives or banned from selling their crops in open markets. Border tariffs are lower and export bans rarer. As a result, innovation is accelerating. Africa has seen an explosion of seed companies producing clever hybrids, which can endure drought and resist disease. Perhaps the best proof of the importance of good government comes from Zimbabwe. It has an awful one, and productivity has crashed.
The progress that has been made elsewhere is wonderful, but not enough. African farms remain far less productive than Asian ones: Chinese farmers harvest more than three times as much grain per hectare. Climate change is expected to make conditions harder. Yet agriculture is essential for firing economic growth across the African continent. More people still live in the countryside than in cities and many of Africa’s cities are not all that dynamic. Asia has a tight grip on labour-intensive manufacturing, although there is certainly space for more food-processing factories in Africa—so, for example, it could export cocoa powder instead of cocoa beans.
Turning an agricultural uptick into a lasting boom will demand more reforms. One priority for Africa’s governments is to dismantle the remaining barriers to innovation in farming. It still takes years to approve new hybrid seeds in some countries. With a few exceptions, such as South Africa, the continent is holding the line against genetically modified crops. This is mad. GM is particularly helpful in making plants resistant to pests—a terrible scourge. The region’s governments should also take greater advantage of mobile technology. Many try to subsidise fertiliser for poor farmers, only for the stuff to be stolen before it reaches the intended recipient. They should be sending money or vouchers directly to mobile wallets.
Africa’s cities are swelling, and the people who live in them crave meat and processed food. That is a huge opportunity for local farmers, but it will be missed if transport does not become far cheaper and easier. At the moment, the rule of thumb is that it costs three times as much to move goods one mile along an African road as it does to move them along an Asian one—and that is before the police shake you down. As a result, fertiliser is expensive and much food is wasted on the way to market. More investment in upgrading shoddy rural roads would be good. Better still would be an assault on the trucking cartels that keep prices high.
Clearing out the weeds
It would help a lot if farmers—particularly women—had clearer rights over land. Proper titles would encourage them to make long-term investments, like terracing and tree-planting, and allow them to use land as collateral for loans. Getting there is tricky. Many countries have long traditions of communal land management and a complicated web of customary farming rights. Charging in and handing out freeholds can actually strip people of rights. But a sensible first step, which a few countries are trying, is to register farmers’ entitlements so their land cannot be pinched.
The rest of the world can help, too. Although some egregious subsidies have been trimmed, the rich world’s taxpayers still spend vast sums propping up their own farmers. America heavily subsidises peanuts and cotton—two things that Africa can grow well. Why shell out to make Africans poorer?