Why Africa is shrinking market for US farm exports

Wednesday, September 28th, 2022 08:55 | By
Ruto risks US sanctions as he announces he's willing to buy fuel from Russia 
President William Ruto and First Lady Rachel meet US President Joe Biden at the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA77) in New York, USA on September 23, 2022. PHOTO/State House Kenya.

Most of American agriculture sees Africa as one vast nation and one vast market. It is, of course, neither.

 Africa, in fact, has more nations (54), more languages (over 2,000), and more cultures (3,000-plus), than any other continent.

It is also the world’s second largest and second most populous continent with three times the population and twice the area as North America.

 Moreover, Africa is a shrinking market for US agriculture exports. The US Department of Agriculture data states the “average compound growth” of US ag sales to sub-Saharan Africa–all the African nations that do not touch the Mediterranean Sea–was a negative 1.5 per cent from 2012 through 2021.

That means the three-year average US export value to sub-Saharan nations fell from $2.4 billion in 2012 to $2.1 billion in 2021.  So, yes, most American agriculture are mostly wrong on most things African. Which begs the question, given our broad ignorance of Africa, why do we still think we know what is best for this culturally rich, incredibly diverse, enormous continent’s farm and food sectors?  It is a question that was asked at the most recent Africa Green Revolution Forum in Kigali, Rwanda. The Forum, backed by AGRA, one of Africa’s largest ag organisations that hopes to build a “resilient agri-food system” throughout central Africa, had its longstanding advocacy of Western-style agriculture questioned by both African and Western farm and food policy leaders.

 And for good reason: A week before the meeting, a story in Nation, the largest circulated, independent newspaper in Kenya, spotlighted AGRA’s policy record. It showed that over the last 17 years AGRA had spent $1 billion trying to double crop yields and farm incomes for “small-scale” farmers in 13 African countries.

But its biggest achievement, according to Timothy Wise, the author, a senior research fellow at Tufts University’s Global Development and Environmental Institute, was “a 30 per cent increase in hunger” across those same 13 nations where AGRA’s Western solutions had been implemented. AGRA’s biggest problem, according to Wise, who also serves as a senior advisor at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, was its retreaded 1960s version of the “Green Revolution,” that he called “an imported, top-down approach reliant on imported fertilizers and other inputs” that work against “small-scale farmers.”

Much of the blame was directed at America – the wellspring of good intentions, much certainty, and many billionaires. Specifically targeted was Bill Gates, the super-rich monopolist who sees Africa’s inherent, multifaceted farm and food woes mostly as a technology shortfall.

 But Africa is not North America and its central food producing region is not the US. Midwest. As such, it should be plain that American ag monoculture –capital-driven, carbon-intensive and techno-industrial – can never take root in deeply impoverished yet richly diverse Africa despite decades of patronising effort.

 Even Gates’ hometown newspaper, the Seattle Times, can read that handwriting on the genetically modified organism (GMO) seed bag. In a remarkably candid, September 8 assessment of the Gates Foundation multiyear effort “to deliver on promises to radically reduce (African) hunger and increase farm productivity,” the newspaper quoted one African expert to label the effort as nothing more than “...the second phase of colonisation.”

Gates returned fire September 12, to say the solution to today’s “global hunger crisis”–a reference to the Covid pandemic and Ukrainian war–is what he called “magic seeds,” crops that are “engineered to adapt to climate change and resist agricultural pests.” Which sounds like an updated version of the same 20-year, $1-billion prescription that dramatically grew hunger across much of Africa.

—  The writer is a  a columnist with Argus Leader

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