Adolphus Johnson (left), the board chairman of the African Forum for Agricultural Advisory Services (AFAAS), talked to New Vision's Joel Ogwang during the Africa extension week held in Gaborone, Botswana from August 4-9.
Africa has the biggest challenge of reversing hunger, disease and extreme poverty afflicting her. States need to combine and work together to achieve this.
Through the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD), the African Union (AU) agreed to prioritise increase food productivity on the African continent.
Extension services are positioned as a key goal of the AU under the Maputo Declaration of 2003. It envisages sharing best-practices to increase its availability to farmers.
One way of doing this is through increased investment in advisory services. Unfortunately, this has for a long time been fragmented and the practice not well focused.
Challenges to agriculture in Africa
As well, the majority of farmers in Africa are smallholders (peasants) with limited accessibility to finances to expand their production.
Other impediments to their growth are; lack of complementary resources especially labour saving tools and limited access to improved seeds which are, in most cases, too expensive for them.
Most farmers in Africa still use rudimentary tools like the hand hoe that can only hold them in the peasantry and not large scale production.
The fact that most governments lack subsidies that could save farmers from these difficulties has left them at the level of subsistence because even their access to improved technology and transactional cost is limited.
In agriculture, most subsidies are determined by donors who fund them since most government’s priorities lie elsewhere.
Most of our economies depend on donor input; when they privatise or liberalise industries like fertilizers and leave their prices to be determined by market forces (of demand and supply) farmers can’t afford them.
This limits the level of farmers’ innovativeness, leaving the continent with low productivity and regular acute food shortages and malnutrition.
The fact that Africa also relies on rain-fed and small-holder farming system of agriculture renders them vulnerable to weather vagaries especially now when there climate change is real and with us.
Subsidies crucial in agriculture
Subsidies are critical in agriculture, just like in other industries. To begin with, they help provide an insurance policy for farmers because the burden of risks is shared by the farmer and the government.
This stimulates growth in production, better transportation to markets and better prices for their output.
To leverage increased production that ensures regular supply of food at households and national level, our Africa governments need to integrate smallholder farmers into large networks so as to provide them with competitive capabilities.
Unfortunately, they bear all the costs involved in production, like buying seeds, fertilizers and inputs for irrigation, which lowers their profitability and ability to share risks.
This increases conservatism because they are afraid of investing their little income into inputs.
Why Europe and Asia beat Africa in production
Europe or Asia, on the other hand offer farmers a lot of subsidies which come in form of input, technology and marketing, among others.
If we (African farmers) are to operate at a level where we are competitive, our farmers need to have near the same or more advantages as those in other continents.
Subsidies are important for African farmers if they are to break out of the stranglehold of small-holder agriculture, but the respective governments need to provide adequate resources to the sector and ensure financing requirements are friendly to the farming communities.
For example, the interest rates should be favourable but, in Africa, this (interest rates) range from 10% to 20% or more for formal lending.
On the other hand, European and Asian economies offer interest rates of less than 2%. African governments need to subsidise in order to bring our farmers to the level of competitiveness that other countries and continents are at.
But it should be farmers alone to advocate for these reforms. Food security should be everyone’s concern and when farmers are producing less, everyone’s survival is at stake.
Advocacy for these issues has to increase so that our governments provide buffers for farmers to bear fewer risks and improve their competitiveness.