London — African agriculture has enjoyed something of a makeover in recent years, shedding the tired image of a poor farmer barely able to scratch out a living with a hoe, according to the head of a regional partnership set up to improve smallholder farming on the continent.
The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), founded by the Rockefeller Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 2006, focuses on getting better quality seeds to farmers, boosting their access to markets and finance, helping them band together to lobby for policy change, and revitalising degraded soils.
AGRA's president, Jane Karuku, believes one of the main shifts in African farming is "how topical it has become" at both national and international levels. "The fact that African agriculture has got so much attention in the last two years is great," she told Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.
But it's not all just talk. There is growing demand - albeit still low - for high-yielding seeds that are more resilient to climate stresses such as drought. Infrastructure is being built, mobile phones are spreading weather and price information far and wide, and mechanisation is on the rise. As a result, the productivity of African farmers has begun to creep up.
"People have stopped seeing agriculture as subsistence - and even if you are subsistence, you still want to make a profit," said Karuku. "A lot of these farmers use about 60 percent of their income to buy food, so they want to improve their productivity, and they want to have extra to sell...so certainly the notion of 'I am a smallholder farmer, I can be profitable' is rife."
There's still some way to go, however, particularly in attracting younger Africans to farming. Last week, the Montpellier Panel, a group of European and African experts in agricultural development, released a report arguing that investment in rural and food-sector entrepreneurship among Africa's growing youth population would create jobs, wealth and robust livelihoods, as well as achieving food security.
Africa has almost 200 million people aged between 15 and 24, but more than 70 percent of young Africans live on less than $2 per day, and they are twice as likely to be unemployed as adults, the report said.
Encouraging more young people into agriculture is a solution that can also prevent them migrating to city slums or being drawn into illegal activities that pose a security risk, said Karuku, a member of the Montpellier Panel.
SEXY BUSINESS OPPORTUNITIES
"The reason they don't like (agriculture) is because subsistence farming has been hard and treacherous, because of the use of the hoe," she said. But "there is new demand now for mechanisation, making agriculture sexy."
There are more exciting agricultural business opportunities than toiling away in the fields, including things like renting out tractors, setting up seed and fertiliser dealerships, and using greenhouses to grow tomatoes and other new crops, according to Karuku. "I think there are many points at which you can attract the youth - it is not all doom and gloom, and take the hoe," she said.
At the same time, farming has to be profitable for young people to want to get involved, and they tend to find it hard to find start-up finance as many don't own land that can be used as collateral. So there is a need for innovative financing, Karuku said.
Nairobi-headquartered AGRA, for example, has worked with commercial banks in several countries, including Kenya and Mozambique, using loan guarantee funds to leverage millions of dollars in credit for small farmers.
Karuku believes that a holistic approach to agriculture - rooted in scientific research, ensuring advances benefit all farmers down to the poorest, and providing marketing and financial support - will also protect Africa from the negative effects of climate change.
"It's not a disaster. It can be dealt with, but we need to address it in a sustainable way," she said. That includes more efficient use of Africa's substantial natural resources, such as harnessing the power of rivers to provide much-needed irrigation on a larger scale, she argued.
Despite the changes that are now underway in African agriculture, Karuku is impatient with the pace of transformation.
"What we have is nice little things that work. Proof of concepts exists. But ... we must scale up, which is going to come from future investments and everybody playing their part ... It is very urgent," she emphasised.