ANALYSIS. Pierre Jacquemot offers an assessment of the situation and outlines proposals for regaining agricultural and food sovereignty in Africa. By Sylvie Rantrua
This photo released by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) shows farmer Amina Guyo harvesting cowpeas for the day’s main meal on her plot of land next to her home in the Uran district of Moyale, Kenya.© LUIS TATO / FAO / AFP
Closed borders, restricted mobility, confinement… The measures taken to combat the Covid-19 pandemic have shed a harsh light on the issue of sovereignty in Africa, particularly in terms of agriculture and food. Pierre Jacquemot, a diplomat, lecturer at the Paris Institute of Political Studies and author of the report « Reconquering Food Sovereignty in Africa » published by the Jean-Jaurès Foundation, « sees this as a historic opportunity to reinvent the continent’s agricultural systems and food sovereignty ». After the pandemic crisis, governments are likely to prioritise meeting the country’s or region’s food needs before exporting cash crops. With this publication, the Jean-Jaurès Foundation also aims to contribute to the debate on ideas prior to the France-Africa summit to be held in Montpellier from 7 to 9 October.
Agribusiness versus peasant agriculture
There are two opposing views. On the one hand, the modernisation of African agriculture, based on commercial agriculture, the « green revolution » and large capital investments. This model, which has enabled Asia to achieve food security, is defended by the private sector, multinationals and large philanthropic foundations, and even the major donors. « This model, based on increased productivity, involves fertilisers, selected seeds and large-scale irrigation, with a focus on medium and large-scale agricultural enterprises, » explains Pierre Jacquemot. This vision of agribusiness is opposed by the vision of peasant agriculture, which is supported by networks of regional and local peasant organisations, NGOs and also some researchers. Its weight is far from negligible. Some 100 million family farms provide a living for 500 million people on the continent.
The company Congo bio vegetal processes and exports food products to various countries, such as South Africa, Belgium, France and Russia. The small company’s speciality is « chikwangue », made from cassava tubers processed into a white paste that is rolled either into sticks in cassava leaves or into balls stuffed into transparent sausage skins – a craft innovation. JOHN WESSELS / AFP
« This bipolar presentation of African agriculture is certainly simplistic. Few people adhere exclusively, without nuance, to one or the other vision, » says the author. Its main disadvantage is that it ignores all the intermediate forms of possible combinations. There are many in-betweens. He proposes a third way and recognises that positions are changing, even within the major donors.
For the future, it is more relevant to bet on the development of agroecology, improved peasant seeds, soil revitalisation methods, but also combinations, agroforestry and agriculture-livestock, without forgetting, of course, improved organisation and access to local markets. « African agriculture will remain mainly based on the peasantry and rural communities, which will play a crucial role, particularly in integrating a large proportion of rural youth, » the report says.
The role of women
One of the main drivers of this new African agriculture is the emancipation of women. Little by little, they are gaining power. They are often the ones in the fields, growing vegetables, processing and selling. « By gaining more power, by gaining access to property and credit, they are going to revolutionise agriculture, » insists Pierre Jacquemot. « Of course, their status does not help them! They are not owners, they work 18 hours a day, in the fields and at home. Their situation is unfavourable, to say the least. But for the past twenty years, they have been conquering their autonomy, improving the general situation in Africa. They are the ones who suffer the consequences in case of crisis. They are also the ones who find solutions and initiate change. The arrival of electricity in a village changes the situation. They seize it to create, produce and transform. They are the ones who manage daily life and find solutions to improve it, » Pierre Jacquemot explains with conviction.
Access to land and credit
Among the main limiting factors, difficulties in accessing property and credit hinder the development of agricultural activities, particularly for women and young people. To overcome these obstacles, innovative solutions are being implemented, such as in Benin and Madagascar through land certificates that can be presented as collateral for a small loan. Within a group of producers, the joint guarantee also allows access to credit, which is essential for buying seeds, small agricultural equipment and for processing products. In Ghana, access to microcredit is possible thanks to the sealed joint guarantee, through a photo that shows that the borrower can count on her two friends who stand as guarantors.
In the countryside, the improvement of living conditions is based on access to energy made possible by the development of autonomous solar and wind systems (off-grid, not connected to the central network). « It changes life, a fridge in the village to keep fresh products and some medicines, to process agricultural products. Electricity and mobile phones are transforming the rural world, » enthuses Pierre Jacquemot. The dynamism of producer groups, which is supported by electrification and ICTs that provide access to information, is helping to regain food sovereignty.
To overcome the obstacle of low crop productivity, Pierre Jacquemot recommends improving seeds in peasant agriculture, but also developing small-scale irrigation systems, in particular the drip irrigation technique. In the field, African research institutes are working on seed quality, seed improvement and local know-how. This report is full of examples of digital innovations: weather forecasts, price information, adapted insurance, microcredit, tractor sharing and rental, advice and training, etc. One figure sums up this diversity: in 2019, 390 digital solutions related to agriculture were listed in Africa.
On the consumption side, demand is now leaning towards the local. The middle class tends to favour local products and short circuits. « In Senegal, rice produced locally in the river valley or in Casamance is much better than broken rice imported from Vietnam. Households that can afford it are increasingly replacing this broken rice with local rice, especially in the national dish, thiéboudienne, which is made with fish. This dynamic in favour of local products is creating a virtuous circle, even if it takes time, » he says.
Urban agriculture also has its place. « In Kinshasa, some 450 producers’ associations have been trained in good agricultural practices, and microcredit has enabled the creation of small profitable businesses. Kinshasa’s market gardens now produce between 75,000 and 85,000 tonnes of vegetables per year, or 65% of the city’s supply, » the report says.
The commitment of states
Among the states that have adopted national policies to support the agricultural sector, the author of the report recognises that Kenya is the most advanced, both in terms of the dynamism of producer groups, the deployment of electricity in rural areas and its lead in the digital field. Ghana has made a significant shift from relying heavily on cheap, low-quality, and often competing food imports to local production. « Senegal has been experimenting for decades, leading to a sedimentation of projects, particularly in market gardening, and is distinguished by the quality of its scientific research. These three countries have embarked on attempts to regain their food sovereignty, » notes Pierre Jacquemot.
The Covid crisis has given recognition to the role of farmers, with women and young people as key players, » analyses Pierre Jacquemot. It can help us reinvent sovereign and resilient agricultural and food systems. The parameters for change are within the reach of African governments. As long as they allow the multitude of innovations in the countryside and in the cities to unfold and facilitate their appropriation and scaling up.