Developing African agriculture: Big and bold, or small and sensible?
Posted on 28th September, 2020 in Director's Blog
The pre-colonial African economy was not poor. Not in the terms we measure it now, in GDP per capita, or in health and wealth. It was much the same as most other parts of the world before the coming of the industrial revolution: most people farmed, a few people traded, and a very few people were comparatively very rich – mainly rulers.
As has been told many times, the industrial revolution and the globalisation of the world economy, dominated by Western merchants, changed all that. Africa became part of ‘the periphery’, a source of raw materials and labour and latterly subject to colonial rule. It became, comparatively and in some cases absolutely, impoverished.
Contrary to common belief, this did not always suit the colonial powers. In most cases they wanted their colonies to be rich, if only so they could pay their own way and contribute to the prosperity of the metropolis. Of course, there was some enrichment of the metropolis at the expense of impoverishment in the colonies. But when impoverishment led to unrest, the colonial authorities realised they had to do something about it. ‘Colonial development’ was born.
The challenge for governments both before and after independence has been how to adapt African economies, and particularly African agriculture, to the realities of a global economy connected by bonds of finance and trade in a way that enables them to grow fast enough to offer African people greater prosperity and a rising standard of living. This is not a problem exclusive to Africa: Asia, the Middle East and Latin America have all faced the same challenge, each responding in their own way.
I am writing here in shorthand. Each of the above paragraphs deserves a book in itself – in fact thousands of books have already been written about them. But I want to make a point: the lessons we can learn from the successes and failures of colonial governments are still relevant today. The politics has changed, but the land remains the same (the climate a bit less so, and the number of people have, of course, multiplied ten-fold).
Too many African countries are land rich but food poor. The population is growing faster than food production, so more and more is being imported which has to be paid for with other exports. This is not efficient.
The colonial administrations tried three solutions to the problem: firstly, import settlers – that increased production but came with its own heap of problems; secondly, persuade African farmers to grow cash crops for market, not just subsistence – which worked very well in some places; and thirdly, introduce state production on a massive scale.
The classic example of the third is the Groundnut Scheme. In my new book, Imperialism and Development: the East African Groundnut Scheme and its legacy, I explore the thinking behind the scheme, why it failed so spectacularly, and what are the right lessons we can draw from it, both for agriculture in Africa and for megaprojects of every kind.
On the agricultural side, the first striking feature was the planners’ total faith in modern mechanised farming, and the systematic denigration of traditional African agricultural methods. ‘Slash and burn’ subsistence agriculture was regarded as inefficient and old fashioned, incapable of modernisation. The scheme was therefore intended to create an overnight agricultural revolution – bringing the latest modern farming techniques to central Tanzania (Tanganyika as it then was) and transform the barren bush into a cornucopia with the mass production of groundnuts – peanuts as we know them. Farmers would learn how to do it by working on the scheme themselves.
The second striking feature was the speed with which they believed this could be done. Britain was in a hurry to get the oilseeds, and therefore all suggestions of doing a pilot scheme to see what worked and what didn’t went out the window. It was full steam ahead, straight to mass production. The result of this haste was disaster.
The third feature was the almost total ignorance of the local geography and climate in all three regions of the country where the scheme operated. The lack of rain in Kongwa (near Dodoma), the surfeit of it in Tabora, and the inaccessibility of the heavily wooded Southern Province seemed to come as a surprise to the bold planners of the scheme. Everything had to be learnt from scratch. As one official ruefully concluded, the African bush ‘cannot be treated in the same way as the Canadian prairie’.
Fourthly, a fully mechanised scheme assumed the existence of a basic physical and commercial infrastructure that simply did not exist in Tanganyika at this time. Roads, petrol supply, mechanical repair facilities, communications were all lacking and cost a fortune to put in place.
In short, the scheme was over-ambitious, over-hasty, under-prepared and ideologically flawed. After five years of failure, it was closed down with the loss of £36 million – equivalent today to over £1 billion. This mega project proved a mega failure.
What happened then was interesting. The largest area, at Kongwa, was turned over to cattle farming, which is what the Wagogo had used it for before the scheme arrived. The cleared areas in the west and south of the country were turned over to local farmers who made a good living from the land growing tobacco and cashew nuts respectively on small peasant holdings, solutions that would have been better for Tanzania and achieved at a fraction of the cost, from the outset.
And yet, ill-conceived large-scale agricultural schemes continue to be regularly proposed as a solution to Africa’s agricultural problems. Most recently, to pick just one example, in 2009 a Brazilian-Japanese joint venture, Prosavana, proposed to transform 100,000 square kilometers of northern Mozambique through the application of modern farming techniques into an agricultural powerhouse with a mixture of small-holder farms and giant plantations. A decade later, The Economist reported that ‘there is nothing to show for it, except a small research lab and a few model farms’ (16 Nov 2019).
Ethiopia has had more success recently with large-scale farms, and the private-sector led growth of horticulture and floriculture in East Africa has shown that large-scale farming in Africa can work if approached judiciously in the right way in the right place.
But wider success has been found through the development of small-scale commercial farming for the local market rather than for export. But this too needs the right environment and infrastructure. In too many places it is still hampered by uncertain land laws, inadequate finance, dodgy transport and bribery, corruption or antiquated tariff structures at the borders.
Unlocking the potential of small-scale commercial agriculture will be a quicker route to the agricultural revolution that Africa needs, than over-ambitious miracle solutions sought through hasty agricultural megaprojects. We can learn from the past without having to repeat it.
Nick Westcott is director of the Royal African Society.