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Africa, an agricultural powerhouse?

Analysis: By defying the World Bank, Malawi's president showed that Africa's dormant fields have vast export potential.

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A villager walks across drought-cracked ground in Malawi. (Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images)

The situation was grim. It was November 2005, and for more than a year, less than an inch of rain had fallen on much of the country. Irrigated tobacco farms, mostly foreign owned, had managed to survive, but in a land where 70 percent of GDP is based on farming — mostly an acre or less per plot — the prospect of extended drought raised the spectre of famine.

A desperately poor place, Malawi for years had been almost completely dependent on a mixture of tobacco export revenue, international aid donations and IMF and World Bank loans. Scientists have long understood that the vulnerability of the soil in Malawi and other places to drought was not merely a question of water, but also of nitrogen, the key ingredient in fertilizer that farmers elsewhere can afford but which was well beyond the reach of the average Malawian cropper.

So Malawi’s President Bingu wa Mutharika stepped in, funding the distribution of small amounts of fertilizer to farmers all across the country.

The World Bank, led at the time by Paul Wolfowitz, the former Bush administration deputy defense secretary, objected to this move, as did the IMF. But Mutharika persisted, and within one harvest season, his farmers not only produced enough food to feed itself, but also enough to donate to neighbors in need.

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The result surprised western aid experts, as well as Malawi’s African neighbors. Food security remains a problem in Malawi, as elsewhere in the so-called Guinea Savannah — a huge belt of arable (and largely untilled) land with unpredictable rainfall that stretches across Africa from the Atlantic coastline to the Indian Ocean.

But after the initial successes in Malawi, sceptical international donors jumped on board (though, eventually, they withdrew support after Mutharika, who died in April, started arresting his political opponents).

Still, the success of his decision to eschew western food relief for a more sustainable, long-term solution revived an old debate: Is Africa an agricultural basket case, or a potential bread basket?

This is not a new debate — indeed, in colonial times, Africa was a major source of food for the tables of its imperial European masters. But post-colonial chaos sent African agriculture into a steep decline.

But for years, development economists, agronomists and — oddly enough, Latin America experts — have argued that Africa could not only be self-sufficient in food, but also a major player in commodities markets, if only the emphasis on food relief were replaced by a longer term strategy.

At the crux of the debate is the experience of Brazil, another tropical region that once had trouble feeding its people. Back in the 1960s, Brazilian agronomists began experimenting with soil chemistry in a vast barren region called the Cerrado. Nothing much edible grew there at the time, though the region comprised more than 20 percent of the huge nation.

After several years of intensive research, however, scientists discovered that the addition of phosphorous and lime, the region’s soil would support a wide range of crops. Today, the region produces 70 percent of Brazil’s beef, and its huge soya, coffee and pulp farms have turned Brazil into a major agricultural exporter.

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But at a price: one man’s wasteland is another’s pristine wilderness. Today, the World Wildlife Federation lists the Cerrado as one of its most endangered ecosystems as farming and the ugly production of charcoal for Brazil’s steel industry scar the landscape.

Today, momentum is building behind a larger experiment in the Guinea Savannah along the lines of what Malawi briefly achieved. A recent World Bank study concluded that in spite of its poor soil quality, the warm tropical climate, annual precipitation of 800-1,200 mm and political complexities, some 20 million acres of land are suitable for agriculture. Now, less than 10 percent of that land is in agricultural use.

Thus, optimists argue, Africa’s own Cerrado sits fallow, ready to help bridge the gap between the 21st Century’s demand for food commodities and the current production levels buffeted by the vagaries of climate change, markets, changing dietary habits and surging population growth, particularly in the emerging world.

Globally, food demand is becoming acute. Dambisa Moyo, the Zambian-born Harvard economist, is among those who argue that Africa is positioned to benefit from ever rising commodity prices as population increases and the scarcity of arable land increasingly become the focus of international tensions.

Moyo believes that rising food prices and land shortages explain many of the world’s recent conflicts, from unrest in Sudan’s Darfur region and Mali, to the risings in Egypt, Tunisia and other lands affected by the so-called “Arab Spring.”

“Finite and rapidly depleting supplies of land, water, minerals, and fossil fuels cannot match rising demand, driven by a growing world population, rapidly increasing global wealth, and urbanization,” writes Moyo, a former Goldman Sachs analyst, in her latest book, Winner Take All: China’s Race for Resources and What It Means for Us All. “This fundamental supply-demand imbalance will lead to higher commodity prices and an increased risk of resource-driven conflict. In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, commodity prices increased 150 percent. And since 1990, at least twenty-four civil wars and violent conflicts have had their origins in commodities. Many more conflicts are likely in the coming decades.”

Filling this imbalance, she and other economists argue, will rise up the global agenda in coming years, and Africa’s unique position as the continent with the largest areas of untilled arable land will loom large. Africa, in effect, could feed the world.

First, however, Africa will have to feed Africa. The United Nations Population Division projects the world population to increase from approximately 6.8 billion in 2009 to more than 9.1 billion in 2050. The majority of the growth will take place in developing countries, where population is projected to grow from 5.6 billion in 2009 to 7.9 billion in 2050. But Africa’s population is a special case: the continent is expected to double in size between 2009 and 2050.

The challenge is profound. According to Kristin Wedding and Charlotte Hebebrand, two agricultural policy experts and the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, these problems are tremendous. They include missing or inadequate physical infrastructure, such as roads and ports and storage and processing facilities. The lack of rural and regional infrastructure to connect neighboring countries inhibits the ability of rural farmers to receive necessary inputs such as seeds, fertilizer, pesticides and agricultural equipment and their ability to move their products on to local and regional markets. The increased transaction costs do not allow producers to benefit from economies of scale.

The infrastructure needs, in particular, are acute. Africa grows far more food than ever reaches humans. The World Bank estimates that more than half the food grown globally is wasted — i.e., it rots or is eaten by pests before reaching markets. The figure for sub-Saharan Africa could be as high as 60 percent. The bank, which studied the problem in 2009, estimated African governments would need to spend $93 billion annually for the next ten years to create the roads, railways, ports, processing and storage facilities to address this problem.

But inside those figures is confirmation of the vast potential of African agriculture. If Africa’s infrastructure is improved even a little — and it is improving steadily every year — the continent could indeed be an export powerhouse.

Another challenge, of course, is the immature nature of African governance. Malawi’s Mutharika, like the late Ethiopian President Meles Zenawi, who died recently, ultimately regressed into the kind of despots that has always caused well meaning westerners to throw up their hands in despair at Africa’s plight.

But with one difference: Ethiopia today not only feeds itself, but exports a huge amount of food and livestock. And as Jeffrey Sachs, the Harvard development economist, put it upon Mutharika’s death earlier this year, “Mutharika goes to his grave widely despised by his own countrymen … but he “helped put Africa on a path out of poverty and hunger.”