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Africa’s Growing Population - An Opportunity for Agricultural Development

By: Elenah Kimaru

Did you know that the world’s population is expected to reach almost 10 billion people by 2050? Much of this population growth will be in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), where population growth is the fastest in the world – over double the rate of growth of South Asia, the world’s next fastest growing region. If these trends continue, Africa’s population is expected to double by 2050, when 1 in 4 people worldwide will be living in SSA.

The surge in working age adults has the potential to increase productivity, improve innovation, and transform African economies. But the population surge will only benefit the economies that can absorb the influx of new workers. Already, most employment in SSA is self-employment. And in a region where the more labor-intensive manufacturing and agriculture sectors are often underdeveloped, and where good services jobs are not always available, there is a concern that African economies will lack the capacity to absorb so many new workers. Graça Machel, former first lady of both Mozambique and South Africa, warns: “Even though our youth have the potential to transform Africa if neglected, they could exacerbate poverty and inequality while threatening peace, security, and prosperity”

Now is the time to increase agricultural productivity

One thing, however, is certain: An increase in Africa’s population means more mouths to feed. This is sure to pose a challenge in a region already struggling with food insecurity.

Africa has the potential to feed not only itself – it can become the world’s next breadbasket, and use its agricultural potential to guarantee food security and grow its economy. Africa’s enormous size (over 30 million km²) and variations in elevation, waterways, climates and soil types contributes to a diversity of environmental conditions where many different kinds of crops and farming operations can thrive. And increasing productivity in agriculture is key to Africa’s economic development: In 2018, the agriculture sector accounted for only 16% of SSA’s GDP, but it employed 55% of the workforce. Imagine the impact that increasing agriculture productivity could have on the population and on the economy!

Current challenges

Today, Agricultural productivity on the continent has not reached even close to its potential. This is due in large part to the lack of farming modern techniques and expertise, the use of low quality inputs and the misuse of inputs, and the relative lack of farming tools and equipment. (Of course, these trends are not equally represented in every country.) As a result, despite Africa’s significant agricultural potential, the continent is a net food importer.

The role of the private sector

Most agricultural production on the continent is carried out by small scale family farms that often produce at near-subsistence levels. Thus, improvements in agricultural productivity will need to involve private sector empowerment. Small-holder farmers will adopt modern farming techniques, input use, and farming equipment if it makes economic sense for them. So long as farmers do not have storage solutions for their surplus crops or easy access to markets, they lack the economic incentive to take financial risks to try and increase their yields.

Companies bringing innovative solutions to any aspect of the agricultural production chain can play a pivotal role in SSA’s agriculture market, help farmers unlock the potential of their land, contribute to African and global food security, and build successful businesses.

The role of government

Of course, the governments also have a function in developing food production capacity. Subsidizing the costs of farm inputs such as fertilizers and seeds can encourage farmers to take the risk on unfamiliar types of inputs. Governments can also regulate the land market in their countries. The lack of a regulated land market and clear property rights is a major impediment to long term investment in agricultural development.

Working together to accelerate Africa’s agricultural revolution

Africa as a continent must be prepared to feed its growing population. Instead of seeing the rising number of mouths to feed as a challenge, the demographic shift can be an opportunity to transform Africa’s agriculture sector into the world’s breadbasket. For this to happen, however, all stakeholders will need to work together to make sure that SSA is fully tapped into its agricultural potential.

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