Closing Africa’s Competitiveness Gaps

Last week, when Macky Sall, President of Senegal and Chairman of the African Union (AU), met Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi, they discussed many issues related to the war between Ukraine and Russia. But what stood out was the impending food crisis resulting from the effect of the war.

While President Sall’s intention may have been good, what the continent urgently needs is a summit to discuss food security and how Africa can sustainably feed its people.

As home to 60 percent of the world’s arable land and with a young demographic, Africa’s leadership has the potential to harness the abundant human and land resources to create jobs and food security.

In 2019, when the African Union launched the operational phase of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) at a summit in Niger, it created a combined market of over 1.2 billion people and a GDP of $2.5 trillion. This has made Africa the largest free trade area in the world.

But what remained was the issue of competitiveness, investment provisions, intellectual property and e-commerce, among others.

Since the AfCFTA does not open African countries to unfair competition, for it to leapfrog in technology, it is important to embrace e-commerce/marketplace which can be used by countries even those which are not technologically well developed.

The proposed summit is expected to address the problem of social fragmentation, the growing underdevelopment of ties between a society and the clustering of some members along imaginary borders created by colonial administrations.

There is a need to create an ecosystem where even those who live on the other side of the border can trade peacefully. But this has not been the case in many African countries.

For example, when Maasai herders in Kenya were arrested once in Arusha for grazing, it does not create the conditions for economic growth and prosperity. The people at both ends of the border are one.

Ukraine, which is admired for its productivity in agriculture, had some natural advantages in agricultural land spanning 42 million hectares.

Many African countries also have these advantages. Rwanda, for example, is already ready to invest in large-scale production, but does not have the comparative advantage. The DRC with all these assets lacks agricultural culture and competitiveness.

The time has come for the AU to work towards improving the competitiveness of member states by building a country’s capacity to invest in technology and set aside agricultural land.

With advice from the World Bank, virtually all African countries got rid of agricultural extension agents. It hurt productivity.

There is a need to reintroduce extension worker services and increase the competitiveness of individual enterprises with higher profitability, labor productivity and increased employment, as well as improve infrastructure and facilitate trade cross-border.

In addition, skills upgrading and retraining are key to improving food security. Also, the need to invest in research to identify climate-resilient local foods that are rapidly disappearing from the African food chain.

Africa can learn from other countries with similar stories.

In the 1960s, India, which was practically dependent on American food aid, suffered drought in 1965 and 1966. The country benefited from the green revolution movement largely dominated by small farmers.

Some of the key elements then were land consolidation to improve productivity. It is now one of the world’s leading producers of cereals. From its successes in agriculture, the country industrialized.

Land consolidation in Kenya is lagging behind. The country depends on grains from Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Mexico, as much of the country’s production comes from subsistence agriculture.

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