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by Chiji Ojukwu
Despite positive economic growth rates experienced by almost all West African economies since 2005, they have not undergone the structural transformation needed to improve the quality of life of their people, as they are lacking diversification and depend on the exports of a few products.
The agriculture sector is central to achieving food security and broad-based economic growth, representing approximately 35% of the region’s GDP and 60% of the active labour force. Agricultural exports generate around USD 6 billion [annually?], or 16.3% of all products and services exported from the sub-region. Nevertheless, the sector remains constrained by low productivity and major environmental challenges. A 25% decline in rainfall over the last 50 years has had serious consequences for dryland areas. Per-hectare yields for most crops are among the lowest in the world, only increasing by an average of 42% between 1980 and 2005, and accounting for just 30% of the increase in agricultural and food production.
The reduction of agriculture’s contribution to GDP, coupled with a decrease, or a stagnation of the manufacturing sector, raise questions about the quality of growth and poverty reduction in the sub-region. Commodity-driven GDP growth is neither labour-absorptive nor impactful on poverty. With an estimated 54% of West Africans below the poverty line, poverty-reduction is a key challenge. Trends of the last two decades show West Africa to be worse off in terms of poverty levels than the other sub-regions in sub-Saharan Africa. Over a third of the countries in the sub-region are ranked among the poorest in the world.
Consequently, 16% of the population is undernourished, and West Africa’s nutritional deficiencies are more common in women and children, and in the Sahel states and the drier northern areas of coastal countries. About 80% of West Africa’s food needs are met by regional produce, but over the next few years, the sub-region’s agriculture sector will have to meet a huge increase in demand as population which stands at about 290 million could exceed 400 million by 2020, and 500 million by 2030.
Many West African countries are experiencing climatic variability, as well as serious soil degradation, with depletion of nutrients and greater susceptibility to erosion. Compounding the existing challenges, the agricultural sectors of Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, most affected by the Ebola outbreak, are poised to suffer, not only in terms of labour availability and capacity, but also because farms are being abandoned by farmers running away from the epicentres of the epidemic.
But the region has much potential – and much of it underutilized. Land is in no short supply in West Africa; only 28% of arable land was planted in 2005. The potential irrigable land, estimated at about 8.9 million hectares of which less than 10% (920,000 hectares), is mostly utilized for rice, sugar cane and vegetable production. All countries of the sub-region, with the exception of Cape Verde and Burkina Faso, have more renewable fresh water availability than the international standard of rarity.
There is potential for the production of phosphate fertilizers from an estimated 2.23 billion tons of natural phosphate in the sub-region. The output potential of West Africa’s fish resources is considerable. Processing facilities for fish are inadequate and considerable losses are borne by the fisher folks.
And investment is growing and agri-businesses, finance institutions and investors are, more than ever, demonstrating a meaningful commitment to work with smallholders and SMEs to expand business opportunities along the agricultural value chains. Agro-industrial development will maximize job creation and economic diversification.
For the African Development Bank, agriculture, agribusiness and food security have always been a high priority. The Bank currently manages over 100 active national and multi-national projects in its agricultural portfolio, representing 12% of all Bank operations with commitments valued at over USD 2.97 billion. It is currently finalizing a new Agriculture Policy and Strategy (2015-2019) centered on agricultural transformation through support to the development of agricultural value chains within the areas of priority of the Bank’s Ten-Year Strategy (2013-2022).
2014 is Africa’s Year of Agriculture and Food Security. In the context of the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP), the continent’s leaders renewed their commitment to transforming agriculture as a driver of job creation, improved incomes and access to nutritious food.
To achieve these goals, West African governments and their development partners should place agriculture at the centre of their development strategies, and as such must increase agricultural research; create an enabling environment for private-sector participation; increase the use of yield-enhancing practices and technologies; boost investment in soil and water conservation; and improve access to education and technical skills development in rural West Africa.
Countries also need to address non-tariff barriers and take actions to integrate services markets by implementing harmonized regulatory reforms, so as to overcome the obstacles and barriers to regional trade integration and facilitate the flow of goods and services.
And finally, climate change mitigation measures should be incorporated at the country and regional levels, through building adaptive capacity and climate resilient production systems as well as through improved soil and water management techniques that can increase soil organic matter, nutrients, and moisture – reducing the overall crop vulnerability.
Chiji Ojukwu is the Director of the Agriculture and Agro-Industry Department at the African Development Bank.