Agriculture has become a sexy subject in today’s policy-making arena. The sudden renewal of interest in its commercial and small-holder farming sector has thrust Africa into the limelight partly due to the realization by country governments that the agricultural sector has been neglected for too long and partly because it is becoming clear that within the continent lies tremendous capacity for economic transformation by way of capital investment in agricultural development.
Long established economic theory requires that in order for a nation to reach full development, it must pass through 5 stages of growth. According to WW Rostow, economic transformation begins with a traditional society where people live a life of subsistence, trade without currency and in which agriculture is the primary way of life. This process ends with high mass consumption where the consumer is king and the service industry is the primary source of individual livelihoods. Somewhere in between, the society must develop infrastructure, industrialize and develop modern trade and governance structures.
Rostow’s model has been criticized as attempting to provide a one-size-fits-all model for development; a criticism which I agree with because it assumes a number of things;
- that all nations can and will develop in this linear fashion,
- that this sort of top-down, trickle effect approach will always work,
- that all nations want to develop in this manner and end up in a place where mass consumption is the order of the day regardless of who can afford to consume at this level,
- and that all countries are geographically capable of following this model of development.
While there have been a few success stories; most popular among which is Singapore, it is clear that this model has not and will likely never uniformly hold across a continent of 55 countries each of which is as uniquely varied in character and context as the next.
Historical and geographical differences alone make the uniform application of Rostow’s model impossible in Africa.
However, while I have my issues with the model, I also believe that development cannot successfully occur in a vacuum, rather, it must be achieved in a a somewhat structured manner. Many African nations today boast high growth rates with at least a dozen reporting rates over 6% over each year for the last 6 years. however it is clear that two-thirds of this growth comes from consumption with an exploding middle class, skyrocketing consumer purchasing power and a dominant service sector. However nothing is happening for those who are not part of this emerging middle class who, by the way, comprise the majority of the continent’s billion and for whom hunger and disease are still a daily battle. The most ironic fact of all, is that a large percentage of these hungry poor, are farmers!
So while Rostow may have been wrong to assume that all economies can experience growth based on his model, he may have been right to assume that in order for true, across-the-board-growth to occur, the agricultural sector must transition along with the rest of the economy and provide a solid basis for the development of other sectors. The result of an agricultural sector lag is what we have now; lopsided economies where under-performance in a key sector is holding back full economic transformation. Given that most poor people are dependent on agriculture, regional poverty remains an ongoing issue; flying in the face of all the progress that has been made.
So while it would be silly to say that African economies should go back to focusing primarily on an agrarian system of life, it may be more prudent to state that 2 things need to be done simultaneously.
First, the growth process has to re-calibrated in a way that improves agricultural productivity; this will help to lift the bottom majority out of poverty, provide fodder for an idle industrial sector, generate income for a consumption hungry population and sustain current growth levels. Second, while this agricultural revolution is happening, equal attention should be paid to diversification of productive activity to industries outside agriculture. This will help to not only ensure stability for farmers and industry in the face of a changing climate, but will cause the emergence of more balanced societies that fully exploit all available productive opportunities.
Now what I have just captured in one paragraph is a process that requires a dozen or so parameters to be put in place, primary among which are the consistent, dedicated cooperation of a large number of key players, the creation and implementation of various regulations at different levels of government, not to mention a significant outlay of factors of production.
But this is what this forum is about and I look forward to a robust exchange of ideas and innovations targeted at finding sustainable solutions to some of these very daunting challenges.
These are some of my thoughts; please share yours!