Africa: You Can’t Eat Potential

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“You can’t eat potential,” observed Norman E. Borlaug winner of the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize while referring to Africa’s economic predicament. “I am very angry. Very angry at Africa’s present condition,” Prof. George Ayittey lamented recently. “We are talking about a continent which is tremendously rich in mineral resources. Name the mineral and you will find it in Africa. Yet it is mired in grinding poverty and appalling squalor.” Ayittey argued that Africa’s development potential has been plundered and squandered by vampire states. Is the fate of Africa sealed?

For a long time, Africa has sought comfort in the belief of existence of her enormous potential. The continent has been characterized by disease, war and desperate poverty. Some arguments indicate that Africa present state is due to her geographical location. That the African climate facilitates poor planning and management; that the colonial past not only robbed Africans of their self confidence but also distorted history by destroying all signs of past positive achievements that would serve to inspire the present generation. That modern government institutions imposed by the colonial past are in conflict with traditional institutions. And that tribalism has a huge braking effect to development in Africa. The blame game and excuse seeking is an industry on it’s on.


An estimated 70 percent of the population in Africa is locked up in the agricultural sector. Norman Borlaug argued that African farmers are faced with three main problems: depleted soils, scarcity of water and distorted economics caused in large part by primitive transportation system. Low soil fertility is one of the greatest biological obstacles to increased food production. Poor transportation systems lead to fertilizer costing 2 – 3 times more in rural Sub Sahara than it does in Asia. Similarly products incur high marketing costs as was illustrated by a World Bank study a decade ago where it could cost $50 to ship 1 metric ton of corn from Iowa — U.S.A to Mombasa 8500 miles away, and cost $100 to move the same amount of corn to Kampala Uganda 550 miles.

What is an African small scale farmer’s business plan? To replace the handle of his hand hoe, sharpen it, wait for the unpredictable rains and then plant seeds from the previous harvest. The expected outcome is the same, 45 to one 90 kg bag of corn harvest and a series of letters to the son/daughter working somewhere in the city to send money for subsistence. For those who manage to harvest 10 bags, they are counted among the lucky ones; a good harvest is a sign of luck not strenuous thought that ought to back it up. For years this same routine is repeated, the only difference is that the land keeps shrinking in areas where the climate is favorable as each son gets assigned a portion. This low intensity agriculture is characterized by low productivity, low income, malnutrition, diseases, environmental stress and greater instances of poverty.

Africans must urgently move their populations from the agricultural sector to industry and services sector. A tiny percentage of the population in the developed nations feed the entire nation and exports surpluses to third world countries. This can be achieved through making use of the modern scientific knowledge presently locked up in various research centers across the continent. Importing technology from developed countries would do be better than opting for food aid.

The agricultural sector needs to be commercialized. Agricultural products ought to have a market incentive whether they are by small scale or large scale farmers. Small scale farmers can link up to form production companies that will explore strategic agricultural products for marketing and consumption. For instance, the peasant farmers in the maize production area can link up to incorporate a company that can make use of modern technology to either step up maize production and or any other crop that will be viable. The poor farmers can make use of their land sizes to determine the amount of share holding in such companies. This system can work virtually for any crop, sugar cane, cotton, tea, coffee, maize, millet, potatoes, and bananas among others. It is through such an approach that sound business planning will emerge within Africa leading to less reliance on climate fed agriculture.

However, these efforts will be useless unless the African infrastructure is improved. Governments in Africa ought to cut down their ‘to do’ list through privatization in order to focus on key areas that can improve productivity. For instance, by shedding extra weight in sectors such as Telkom, Water supply, Electricity Supply, Postal services, Education, city cleaning and housing, the African governments can accumulate enough to construct better roads. Alternatively, private investors can be allowed to link up with peasant agricultural companies to evaluate cost of road construction and survey possible traffic and come up with road user-pay system to a developer for a specific period of time to facilitate capital reclaim.

Commercialization of agriculture will attract credit from banks to facilitate further economic growth. Through such a competitive approach to agricultural production, individual farm companies may choose to invest in biotechnology, research and marketing strategies within Africa and outside Africa. Agriculture will then, according to Dr. Edwin Mtei former Tanzania Finance minister, cease to be “a back-breaker” of Africa’s economy to a back bone and builder of the economy.

African governments should urgently offer tax breaks and tax holidays to entrepreneurs out to improve the economy. Giving commercial agriculturalists 10 years or more tax holiday to set up business will transform the economy from that of dependency to productivity. Productivity creates wealth; productivity is spurred by growing markets, technological improvement and investing in human beings. Africans instead of investing in excuses must join Norman Borlaug and declare, “You can’t eat potential” and take action now.

”’James Shikwati is the Director Inter Region Economic Network and Coordinator of the Africa Resource Bank.”’

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