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African dilemma - Few options, little time


by Michael Pickstock

Africa's 30-year flirtation with industrialisation and urban growth has ended in tears. The continent is poorer, less stable, less well-fed and less healthy than at independence. And it is in a worse condition than any other region of the world. Many factors have contributed to this unhappy situation but, had priority been given to the development of the rural economy, a dynamic rural sector, including agriculture, agro-processing and agro-serving industries, would by now be offering a springboard for urban development and industrialisation.

Africa was, and remains today, primarily a rural, agriculture-based society and economy. Agriculture is still the major producer of national income even in a country such as oil-rich Nigeria. At independence, Africa largely fed itself and was a leading world producer of palm oil, cotton and coffee. Its supremacy in palm products has passed to Malaysia, which now produces more than the whole of West Africa and controls 75% of the world trade in oil palm. Meanwhile Indonesia, which produced little coffee 20 years ago, now exports more than either of the two principal African producers, Cd'Ivoire and Uganda. In contrast to its food production record, Africa's 'performance' in terms of population growth has been spectacular. Additional mouths, together with drought and war-induced famines and declining soil fertility, have reduced the continent to a chronic dependence on food aid and on the purchase of food imports with borrowed money.

The competition from low-priced food produced overseas can be overwhelming. In many African countries, rice from Asia is sold at 30-40 % of the cost of locally produced rice, thus forcing African farmers out of rice production. In Burkina Faso, wheat is imported from the EU and sold at $60 a tonne, a price approximately one-third lower than the cost of producing and marketing local food staples such as millet and sorghum. The reason for the EU's competitive advantage is the export subsidy of $100 a tonne provided under its Common Agricultural Policy. Unable to compete with these subsidised foreign imports, local agriculture has inevitably suffered, as have efforts to improve self-reliance.

It has been said with justification that Africa specialises in growing what it does not consume and increasingly consumes what it fails to produce. Furthermore, many opportunities for adding value to its agricultural production are neglected. Others undertake the processing that provides both employment and a worthwhile profit margin.

In order to review and assess rural development programmes in Africa, an international workshop was held in Arusha, Tanzania on 17-21 January. The workshop was organised by the Centre for Integrated Rural Development in Africa (CIRDAFRICA), the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA), the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the German Technical Agency (GTZ). Leading African scientists and economists were forthright in their description of the current situation in much of sub-Saharan Africa. They were speaking to a largely African audience from across the continent and the discussion was unusually frank. It is clear that the scientists, economists and planners of African countries recognise what needs to be done, but are the policy makers in government equally conscious that a change in attitude to their rural population is long overdue?

Subsidised beef imports

Presenting one of the keynote papers, Professor Samuel Nana Sinkam, a respected African economist, quoted some uncomfortable statistics. In 1991, the EC exported 54 000 tonnes of beef to West Africa on heavily subsidised terms. While this is only a tiny proportion of the Community's beef mountain (about 3%), it has wreaked havoc in local markets. Pastoral farmers, grazing their herds on environmentally fragile lands, have been thrown into direct competition with Europe's heavily subsidised meat industry, with inevitable results. Already impoverished communities have been forced out of markets and regional trade in cattle has fallen by a third. EC development officials have complained about the damaging effects of beef dumping on the Community-funded projects designed to enhance the productive capacity of pastoral farmers. This is 'a classic example of the almost schizophrenic discrepany between aid and trade policies', says Professor Sinkam. He adds, however, that 'a great failure of development aid in sub-Saharan Africa is its irrelevance to the poor. Aid supply has not reached the really needy and aid has been made ineffective because of a lack of serious government commitment to the reduction of poverty.'

For years, governments, with the acquiescence of donor countries, have adopted a 'we know best' approach to their rural people, implementing policies and projects without consultation and imposing state monopolies that paid too little and too late for farmers' crops and were unreliable in their supply of fertilisers and other inputs. Cheap food favours urban populations and provides no encouragement to rural farmers to produce more for this growing market. Many rural development programmes have underestimated the need for adequate marketing arrangements to take care of such additional production that farmers might have been encouraged to grow. Inadequate roads and high transport costs are a further disincentive to farmers who might be more inclined to grow more for the urban market if they could be sure that their produce would arrive in a saleable condition. Furthermore, it is the farmers who have been the most affected by low export crop prices. Others may have been able to maintain their margins but farmers have suffered greatly. They have had no incentive to invest for the future and the consequences on production have been predictable. Realistic prices, especially for food crops, would be a clear signal of policies promoting agriculture but higher food prices are an explosive issue in cities so this will not be an easy or painless policy to implement.

Women have always been the main food producers in Africa. They undertake the bulk of agricultural labour and produce an estimated 70% of domestic food supplies. They are also responsible for a multiplicity of other roles such as childrearing, fetching water and firewood, and marketing food staples. Yet they are systematically denied access to resources. Even in the many countries which have legally affirmed women's basic right to land ownership, cultural and economic constraints often combine to deny them effective ownership and control. Lacking legal title to land, having few savings and typically producing staple foods on a small scale, women have limited access to institutional credit. They have neither the means nor the incentive to implement soil conservation measures or to plant trees, whether perennial crops (cocoa, coffee, palm, citrus), or forage or fuel trees in agroforestry systems. If African women were given secure access to land and to credit, their already considerable contribution to the food supply of Africa would be greatly multiplied. Furthermore, women usually consider the wellbeing of their children as their highest priority. If customary male chauvinism were relaxed, women would be able to adopt working practices which make better use of the land. The long-term beneficial effect on the environment could be tremendous.

Focus on agro-processing

Agro-processing, such as milling, crushing oil seeds, abattoirs, tanneries and creameries, has provided the basis for rural industrialisation elsewhere and it could do so for Africa as well. The villages and so-called 'market towns' of Europe were market centres and a focal point for processing agricultural products and for services such as transport and engineering: blacksmiths were the progenitors of agricultural engineers. The development of such rural industrial centres would not only provide the services for a burgeoning agriculture but would also offer part- or full-time employment as an alternative to agriculture without the need for people to leave their home village and the security of the extended family. People working locally, within walking or cycling distance of their family home, place no burden on the services of a metropolitan centre, and family and cultural links are maintained.

New projects for rural development should include agriculture, agro-industries, health centres, schools, water supply and electrification. In future, all such projects must involve the local people from planning to implementation and management. Local people must decide their needs and priorities and they must be encouraged from the start to help develop, invest in and manage these projects as a group, cooperative or community. Several such community-basecl projects have proved the long-term sustainability of such an approach. In contrast, the 'graft-on' projects, which donor countries, international organisations and African governments have favoured in the past, have usually failed. At the end of financial assistance, the graft or implant proves to be incompatible and the local community rejects it. One way by which food donors could achieve major beneficial effects on local agricultural production is by financing local purchase of food, however small in volume, from within high-producing regions and making these purchases available to the food-deficit parts of the same country. Such localised food surpluses often remain undistributed for lack of cost-effective transport and weak purchasing power, especially on the part of the central government. Food donors could play an important role by purchasing this surplus and making it available to the hungry in the same country. This process is known as triangular food transactions (TFTs) and such schemes have been successfully implemented in some SADC countries. TFT schemes never disrupt local production. On the contrary, they strengthen it and generate extra resources for development purposes. Even more important, however, they help to avoid the pathetic spectacle of food 'handouts' with all the pyschological effects that these engender.

National governments could play an important role in facilitating an effective marketing system through public investment in critical areas such as road infrastructure. Traders could be encouraged to reach out to remote rural areas by being given access to credit for equipment and working capital. Policies could be put in place which would stimulate the emergence of farmers' organisations for input supply or output marketing. A safeguard rule could be established to prevent, for instance, competitive food commodity imports at dumping prices. This would help to protect domestic production.

Africa has many problems. The statistics of rocketing population, plunging food self-sufficiency, high maternal and child mortality and widespread malnutrition leave a depressing impression. African women are 50 times more likely to die in childbirth than American or European women. Six million Africans die before their fifth birthday and 50 million are severely malnourished. Yet Africa has enormous human and natural resources and its people can be very resourceful. They have a stoical ability to survive adversity and, when given incentives, they are capable of increasing productivity.

It was apparent from the meeting in Arusha that African scientists, economists, agronomists and planners recognise the critical plight of their continent and accept the hard decisions that must be taken. A healthy economy fuels itself through reinvestment and the development of more entrepreneurs. A dynamic rural sector provides the firm foundation for urban development. Africa has little time and no choice. Rural development is essential but new attitudes and policies are necessary if it is to deliver its promised benefits. It is to be hoped that Africa's policy makers will also recognise that hard decisions must be taken. Failure to do so will, almost certainly, be catastrophic for their people. In the words of Tanzania's Minister of Agriculture, in his dosing address to the International Workshop, 'either we do it now, or we leave our people to perish.'

M.P.