By Charles Dhewa
A couple of questions can motivate African policy makers to think critically and reflect about possible starting points for transforming African agriculture from 2020 and beyond. There is no longer any doubt that most imported policy recommendations have failed to fully develop African economies. To that end, as 2020 beckons African agricultural economists and policy makers should ask themselves hard but very authentic questions if they are to really contribute positively to meaningful development.
More value addition in production zones
In spite of development agencies working in rural Africa for decades, agricultural commodities have continued to flow from rural to urban centres for value addition. The year 2020 should see a reversal of this unfortunate trend. If development agencies were really focusing on development, by now Zimbabwean farmers would be value-adding sunflower at local business centres and growth points like Gokwe, Magunje, Muzarabani, Chitekete and many others closer to farming areas. Engineers should have designed appropriate medium scale machinery that use diesel, hydro or solar power.
Each household that produces sunflower would be getting its allocation of cooking oil and animal cake with excess cooking oil finding its way into urban markets where it would out-compete expensive cooking oil from corporates. That is the kind of transformation African economies want as opposed to following the colonial route where raw materials used to travel to cities only to come back into rural areas as unaffordable finished products. Stock feed from sunflower cake can stimulate other value chains like piggery and cattle production. These are also pathways for introducing appropriate technology as well as other business opportunities around solar energy and relevant customized infrastructure.
Producing and selling raw commodities directly to the market has only guaranteed average profits for farmers for decades. For instance, there is no reason why potato crisps cannot be produced in production zones such as Nyanga in Zimbabwe. It is not sustainable to continue persuading farmers to produce for contractors and the fresh market because they will eventually stop due to skewed business terms. Why are farmers being persuaded to aggregate groundnuts and deliver to the Grain Marketing Board (GMB) only for peanut butter processing companies to pick those nuts from GMB and produce peanut butter which is then sold back to groundnut producers? Peanut butter can easily be produced at local business centres like Munengiwa Enterprises in Gokwe South. This is how African countries can reduce urban unemployment as young people go back to rural areas to utilize cheap land, water and other resources. That will be the genesis of true economic transformation backed by rural industrialization.
Why should salted Maputi be produced in cities when it can easily be produced in rural business centres like what is happening at Chinehasha business centre in Chiweshe community of Zimbabwe? In what mimics toll-value addition, a local business person is processing maize grain into Maputi for local farmers who simply bring their maize grain for roasting into Maputi for a small fee and they take back their processed Maputi for school children’s tuck. More groundnuts are added into the maputi unlike in cities where a few grains of groundnut are added to Maputi (Kungonyunyurudza).
Why should high quality sugar cane come all the way from Honde Valley and Murewa to Mbare in Harare for raw consumption with no attempts to produce sugar at source? Why are engineers failing to come up with small sugar mills? Research could only look at the differences in sugar content between garden sugar cane which grows very well in the rainy season and industrial sugar cane produced through irrigation in Africa’s Lowveld. Why should mango, tomatoes and other commodities travel 192km from Mutoko to Harare when Mutoko centre is becoming a town? If you see green mealies travelling 604km from Chiredzi to Harare and farmers travelling 550km with commodities from Fig tree to Harare it’s a naked signal of poor market development in the country. There is no way such farmers will make money.
Business models hidden in plain sight
There are many examples of businesses that are keeping communities alive in many parts of Africa but are not receiving policy attention and support. Instead, policy makers seem interested in high profile interventions tied to Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) yet commendable innovations are taking place at the grassroots. Why should goats and cattle travel more than 600km all the way from Binga for slaughter in Harare (Koala)? There should be abattoirs in production zones and local levels. Local farmers and communities are not enjoying offals, Mazondo and Musoro of their cattle because everything is taken to big cities.
Wheat from Jotsholo in Matebeleland North province is being delivered at GMB Aspindale in Harare (more than 800km away) only for bakeries from Marondera to come and pick wheat flour from Aspindale for baking bread which then finds its way back to Matebeleland North. Only lazy thinking can fail to notice something really wrong with this arrangement. In addition, corporate bakeries tend to have too many overheads which prevent wheat farmers from being paid a fair price. Local bakeries do not have over-heads in the form of positions like CEO, Finance Manager, HR Manager, Distribution Manager and an army of managers below who all constitute an unsustainable over-head for a struggling economy.
Transformative potential of mass food markets
By ignoring the role of mass food markets, African countries are under-valuing their economies. That attitude must change in 2020. It is through mass markets that policy makers can see agricultural commodities transitioning from being luxuries to necessities. For instance, Africa’s fast food industry will not survive without potatoes. The poultry industry will also go down if potato production and supply is negatively affected because chicken and chips has become a famous staple for the young generation. In addition, there is no potato crisps industry without potatoes. The hospitality industry will be plunged into mourning if potatoes are not available.
More importantly, boiled potato and butternuts are becoming substitutes for porridge for young children. The high cost of wheat flour is raising the demand for tubers like potatoes and sweet potatoes. Government can intervene by promoting breeding and multiplication of cheaper potato seed so that rural areas that are currently depending on mass markets which distribute potatoes from production zones can also start producing potatoes in their back yards and gardens the way sweet potatoes have been agronomized. There is no reason why NGOs that are supporting agriculture should continue ignoring potatoes that have meaningful economic, nutritional and social benefits.
Transforming African economies from the bottom
As demonstrated above, there is enormous potential for African countries to begin their transformation by supporting what is already working. While high profile project attract more buzz and media attention, they rarely translate into authentic and sustainable transformation including the promised employment creation. On the other hand, when fully supported, local communities can come up with appropriate solutions in their production zones. Unfortunately, African policy makers have embraced predominantly western ideas about development. Their world view assumes community and traditional agricultural practices are less developed and therefore have to be integrated from the top into the so-called global economy irrespective of local contexts.
Yet the cost of inputs cannot be the same for Binga which is a dry area and Honde Valley which depends on fruits. As if that is not enough, national dialogue tends to attract representatives with no experience on what is happening on the ground. In 2020, African governments have to desist from moving information through protocols and statutory instruments which do not consider community voices. Africa will not be developed through a linear development model that rests on the perspectives and capabilities of elites at the expense of ordinary people’s sensibilities.