In 2003, African governments committed to dedicating 10 percent of their national budgets to agriculture in the Maputo Declaration on Agriculture and Food Security in Africa at the African Union. The nations were convinced that with this investment they could achieve 6 percent agricultural growth per year, which would lead, in turn, to a host of positive results including increased food security, a reduction in food imports, and lower unemployment. 

Agricultural spending has grown 7 percent on average throughout the continent since then. But only 13 African nations – Burundi, Burkina Faso, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Niger, Senegal, Zambia and Zimbabwe – have reached the 10 percent goal in even one given year, and none have reached it every year.

An estimated 70 percent of Sub-Saharan Africans make their living from agriculture. Many of them engage in subsistence agriculture, which does not create enough capital to expand their operations or even support their families. Thus, deeper public investment would be designed to push these farmers past the subsistence level.

Given the importance of agriculture to the continent, the African Union (AU) has declared 2014 the “Year of Agriculture and Food Security.”

In 2003, African governments committed to dedicating 10 percent of their national budgets to agriculture in the Maputo Declaration on Agriculture and Food Security in Africa at the African Union. The nations were convinced that with this investment they could achieve 6 percent agricultural growth per year, which would lead, in turn, to a host of positive results including increased food security, a reduction in food imports, and lower unemployment. 

Agricultural spending has grown 7 percent on average throughout the continent since then. But only 13 African nations – Burundi, Burkina Faso, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Niger, Senegal, Zambia and Zimbabwe – have reached the 10 percent goal in even one given year, and none have reached it every year.

An estimated 70 percent of Sub-Saharan Africans make their living from agriculture. Many of them engage in subsistence agriculture, which does not create enough capital to expand their operations or even support their families. Thus, deeper public investment would be designed to push these farmers past the subsistence level.

Given the importance of agriculture to the continent, the African Union (AU) has declared 2014 the “Year of Agriculture and Food Security.” The AU is holding follow-up summits and meetings on agriculture in Africa, and agriculture was a major focus at the World Bank Civil Society Organization Meetings held in Washington D.C. in early April. At these meetings, the hope for more government investment was discussed, as was the hope that this would translate into increased private sector investment.

During one of the panels, Sipho Moyo of the ONE Foundation explained many of challenges Africa faces in the agricultural realm. One major issue is the underdevelopment of many African value chains, meaning that farmers lack the ability to successfully process and market their products, keeping their revenues far below potential. For example, coffee is one of Africa’s most successful exports – but 90 percent of the total income from that coffee goes to the consuming countries because it is not roasted, ground and packaged in Africa.

The cassava root is another example of a product which could be more profitable, and better utilized to fight malnutrition. When cassava is not processed rapidly, it rots and goes to waste. However, while the root does not naturally have many nutrients, it can be fortified so that it can add value to everyday African diets. In Nigeria, for instance, the government is investing in fortifying cassava with essential vitamins such as Vitamin A and then blending the cassava flour with soy flour to create a more complete and nutritious product. The government hopes that these efforts will reduce malnutrition in Nigeria due to cassava’s role as a basic staple eaten alongside most meals.

Additional investments in would also reduce Africa’s reliance on expensive imported food. The continent currently imports 40 percent of its food, spending $40 to $50 billion a year. 1980 was a key year, when Sub-Saharan Africa switched from being a net exporter to a net importer of agricultural products. Indeed, before the 1980s, Zimbabwe had been known as the “breadbasket of Africa.”

The continent still has untapped farmland (some estimates place it at upwards of 60 percent of the world’s total). This land could be put to use with investments in irrigation and infrastructure. Policies to formalize and support land ownership are also necessary – only 10 percent of landholders currently hold property deeds, decreasing the incentive to add value to their properties and increasing economic insecurity.

According to Dr. Lapodini Atouga, of the Agriculture Development Directorate of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), there are also numerous necessary investments which are not directly related to agriculture per se. These include a transparent regulatory environment, strong enforcement of property laws, risk insurance policies for private companies investing in agriculture, creating necessary infrastructure, and subsidizing interest rates. Until these steps are taken, he argues, private industry will not invest in African agriculture because of the high risk and mediocre returns.

As the World Bank panelists and many other experts have argued, until the public and private sector find ways of working together to increase investment in the agricultural sector, Africa will remain largely unable to feed itself. Changing this fate will mean African governments which are willing to truly commit to agriculture modernization, and take the important steps necessary for growing their economies and feeding their citizens.