Given the change in global agricultural production and trade patterns that followed the Carter grain embargo in 1980, it is worth considering what changes may emerge in the years after the Trump era tariffs. While attention has been focused over the last several months on the opportunity the tariffs create for South America to expand its share of global soybean production, consideration also should be directed to a continent with even greater untapped agricultural potential — Africa.
Many analysts have predicted we have entered what will become the “African century.” A report by the International Monetary Fund bases this forecast on the adage “demography is destiny.” By 2030, the IMF said growth in Africa’s labor force will exceed the rest of the world’s labor force combined. Outside of Africa, the number of those entering the labor force will slump to 0.5% of the population per year from the 2% average from 1980 to 2000. This demographic shift represents an opportunity for sub-Saharan Africa, contingent on successful investments in infrastructure and education.
Success will not be without challenges. Much of the continent has been riven by bloody warfare over the last half century, and concern presently is greatest around the Sahel — a stretch of land from Mauritania and Senegal in the west to Sudan and Eritrea in the east. A dangerous mix of food production problems linked for several years to changing climate and the emergence of Islamist terror groups threaten to place a stranglehold on the area. The region includes some of Africa’s most rapidly advancing and growing countries, but the Sahel could undermine its prospects unless political instability, violence and corruption are addressed. Poor governance across the continent remains a great impediment to progress.
If Africa is to emerge from its low state, agriculture will play an important role. World Bank research published in 2008 indicated growth in agriculture is 11 times more effective at reducing poverty than growth in other sectors. Successes have been achieved, including a program in Ethiopia aimed at lifting the incomes of rural, chronically food-insecure households. The program is credited with helping nearly 8 million Ethiopians gain food security and raising the likelihood participants will access health care and educate their children.
To whatever degree this will be the African century, producers there do not appear on the cusp of matching the productivity of the leading oilseeds producers of the world. A paper by Peter Goldsmith, Ph.D. in the Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics at the University of Illinois, notes soybean producers in sub-Saharan Africa yield about one-third of those in leading soybean producing countries in the world. In the paper, Dr. Goldsmith blamed the poor yields on a lack of investment in inputs, meaning growers tend to use saved seeds, low seed populations, no inputs or mechanization and late planting dates. Researchers found this regime in northern Ghana generated yields between 9 and 11 bushels per acre and that the low input model does not achieve economically sustainable returns. Growers operate at a loss. This rudimentary approach may be attractive to donors or those charged with rural development but was discouraged by the researchers. “The low input/low output model, which predominates in the tropics of Africa, stands opposed to the successful high-input-high-output model used in the tropics of South America,” he said. Overcoming the ill-conceived low-input model for agricultural output won’t be easy but will be crucial if Africa is to begin to approach achieving its long unmet potential.