Land Is Not Enough
There are an increasing number of people in the African Diaspora who want to start farming in Africa. They usually possess land they think can become profitable with a poultry farm or fruit/vegetable farm. There is merit in the idea, but those who choose this path should understand that land itself is not enough.
I know people involved in financing such projects, and they tell me plenty of people own land in Africa. However, lenders and investors need to see how the land will be used and how the loan or investment will pay off. This is where prospective farmers often run into problems. You need to know not just what you think you want to grow; you also need to demonstrate how you will acquire the livestock or seeds. You also need to know what your process for farming will be and demonstrate that you or your workers have the ability to follow through with your plan. Furthermore, you need to have a solid process for identifying your buyers with definite, achievable means to deliver the goods to those buyers in the quantities and price desired.
The interest in farming is Africa has a lot of merit. Africa’s total land area is approximately 11,724,000 square miles (or 30,365,000 square km), and the continent measures about 5,000 miles (8,000 km) from north to south and about 4,600 miles (7,400 km) from east to west. Currently, only a fraction is used for farming. Ten years ago, the World Bank estimated that the region had 200 million hectares of suitable land that was not being used for crop. That’s almost half of the world’s total, and more than the entire cultivated land area of the United States.
That potential excites many. “Africa is the future breadbasket of the world,” Ephraim Nkonya of the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute was quoted as saying a few years ago. So one can see why so many dream of filling the food gap and producing meat, milk and eggs or fruits and vegetables.
Yet perhaps a tenth of Africa’s cultivated land is now in the hands of big business, which uses most of it for biofuels, timber and other non-food crops. As significant is the rise of mid-size farms (those between five and 100 hectares), often owned by civil servants in the cities. “They have the political connections,” said Thomas Jayne of Michigan State University. Many are not serious farmers. Those who own more than 20 hectares often leave most of it idle. I saw this first-hand in Zimbabwe several years ago, where the government of former Prime Minister Robert Mugabe had given land to so-called war veterans who weren’t interested much in farming, preferring to use the land as collateral for loans. In between visits in 2001 and 2005, you could see the difference in the output from farms still owned by dedicated farmers and experienced farm workers and those who weren’t serious about commercial farming. The level of crop growth in the two kinds of farms was significantly different.
According to a June 2019 report by the Borgen Project, a non-profit that focuses on alleviating poverty and hunger, “while the sweeping plains of East and South Africa are abundant in natural resources, there are still high levels of poverty among farmers.” The report cited 10 facts about farming in Africa that explain why farmers in Africa fall below the international poverty level. They include the relentless spread of the Sahara Desert and resulting arid land; the fact that roughly 65 percent of Africa’s population relies on subsistence farming, where one family grows only enough to feed themselves, and the fact that although women comprise the largest share of the agricultural labor force in Africa, producing 80 percent of the continent’s food, they too often are excluded from influencing agricultural policies or the laws deprive them of their land and livelihood. It would be extremely difficult if not nearly impossible to increase the effectiveness of farming in Africa without taking into account women farmers, but to date they are unfortunately still being ignored and underserved.
Africa is experiencing a phenomenon similar to what happened to U.S.-born farmers. Large families, with complicated inheritance practices that favored selling or splitting the land among heirs, led to the loss of large family farms. Young people who found themselves left out of land inheritance or who lacked the interest in or patience with the difficulty of successful farming deserted the rural areas to seek employment in urban settings. This exodus of young potential farmers and farm workers meant the labor pools continued to dry up.
There certainly is a great need for farms in Africa. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Global Food Security Index, 49 of the 113 countries surveyed experienced food volatility, even in developed countries such as Norway. Farmers are being asked to grow more food for expanding populations on less land with fewer resources – all the while combating often dramatic climate shifts.
Still, Africa and the world still needs effective farmers. The United Nations estimates that about 690 million people worldwide go to bed hungry each night, even though effective land management and farming make such hunger preventable.
So if you’re one of the people who want to start a farm in Africa, don’t let the challenges stand in your way because you can more than make a living in farming, but do realize it takes more than the land under your feet to succeed.