African farms are vastly different but share common bonds

Subsistence farming is still the norm in Africa, but agriculture is the 
key to changing its economic fortunes

Look past the current woes of African agriculture and you’ll see vast potential, says South African farmer 
Theo de Jager.
Reading Time: 3 minutes

Africa is a world apart but as in Canada, farming is increasingly being recognized as a key driver of economic growth.

“There’s no other way to fight poverty than to create wealth,” South African farmer Theo de Jager told an international gathering of farm journalists here last month.

“And there’s no other sector in this economy that has the potential to create the kind of wealth that can lift the masses out of poverty.”

Poverty is the “biggest single challenge of this continent,” said de Jager, who produces timber, livestock, mangoes, avocados, and macadamia nuts on his farm in Limpopo, South Africa’s northernmost province.

But the method for meeting that challenge has taken an abrupt shift. Instead of relying on government, the farmers are realizing their best resource is each other, he said. New farm organizations have sprung up in the past few years, including independent agricultural unions that communicate across borders, allowing farmers to network with producers in other African countries.

“The key to unlocking wealth in African agriculture is the way you organize farmers,” de Jager said at the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists’ world congress. “This is the way European farming (or North American) farming got to the way it is today. It all started with small co-operatives. Together, we can do more.”

It’s a theme that Alberta producers who support the Canadian Foodgrains Bank would recognize.

A major focus of that organization, which has projects in nearly 20 African countries, is “agriculture and livelihoods programming” — helping families to not only provide food for themselves but also to boost yields so they can generate an income from farming.

The potential is certainly there, said de Jager.

“How ironic could it be that the producers on this continent are some of the world’s most food-insecure people,” he said.

South Africa is the only net food exporter on the continent, but in many cases, it is easier (and more profitable) to sell its agricultural goods to Europe, Australia, or North America. Less than three per cent of food and fibre sold within the continent is produced there. Again there are parallels with Canada — because freight is so expensive and there are many internal trade barriers, it is often easier to import from abroad rather than cross borders.

A lack of farming equipment is another barrier — the most common tool is the hand hoe (usually wielded by women, who account for more than 70 per cent of farmers on the continent).

“We must mechanize agriculture on the African continent or it will never be a means of an end to poverty,” said de Jager.

However, Africa has advanced greatly in communications technology and producers have more access to information thanks to cellphone technology.

“You can go into the deepest corners of Africa and you can find people with mobile phones,” he said.

European and North American organizations have invested in African farming by sharing equipment, skills, and knowledge. However, there are always challenges with this approach, he said. The best way for people in Africa to access equipment or develop their industry is to group together in small collectives to purchase or run the equipment.

“Even if you could do that flawlessly, it will cost a lot. African agriculture needs a lot of investments to get off the ground and financing is very scarce,” said de Jager.

Very few farmers on the continent own their own land. Only some farmers in South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, and Zambia have landownership rights. Many farmers on the continent are without land deeds — although that does not lessen their love for the land they farm.

“In Africa, there is a very special bond between the people and the land, as if the people were made from this very land which they farm,” said de Jager. “Land is something much more than just a means of production for the African farmer. If you want to invest in farmland as an outsider, you must know this. If you want to use land, you marry the people. It’s a long-term relationship. They have to like you and you must like them.”

Outside investors often fail to understand that.

“Too many investors love the land and try to manage the people, instead of loving the people and managing the land,” he said to applause from the room.

About the author


Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."



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