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Agricultural transformation on agenda of African Economic Conference

The 11th African Economic Conference (AEC) kicked off in Abuja, Nigeria, on Monday with a consensus on the need to scale up the continent’s agricultural transformation to spur industrialization and inclusive growth.

Opening the conference, Nigeria’s Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo highlighted how the Nigerian Government and private sector partners are leveraging resources for agricultural transformation in the midst of the global economic recession, which has resulted in the country losing up to 1 million barrels of crude oil daily.

Vice-President Osinbajo, who spoke on behalf of President Muhammadu Buhari, disclosed numerous efforts being made by the Government to support agriculture and its value chains to diversify and transform the economy in the absence of oil resources, which formed the backbone of the economy.

He expressed the hope that the conference would come up with evidence-based research and knowledge of good practices that can help Nigeria and other African countries to transform their agricultural production for more sustainable growth.

Over 300 participants are attending the annual event, co-organized by the African Development Bank (AfDB), UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), on the theme, “Feed Africa: Towards Agro-Allied Industrialization for Inclusive Growth.”

AfDB President, Akinwumi Adesina, reminded participants that Nigeria was chosen to host the conference largely because of its enormous potential in agriculture, which, if well harnessed has the potential to become a global powerhouse through agro-industrialization.

In a keynote speech, Adesina noted that agriculture, which contributes over 28% of the GDP of Africa, holds the key for the accelerated growth and diversification and job creation for African economies in many ways.

“Agriculture provides the basic raw materials needed for industrial development. Food accounts for the highest share of consumer price index and providing cheap food is critical for taming inflation. When inflation is low, interest rates decline and it brings greater private sector investments. A more productive, efficient and competitive agriculture sector is critical for boosting rural economies, where majority of the population live in Africa,” Adesina said, noting that “the future of Africa depends on agriculture.”

Citing examples in Africa (Ethiopia, Kenya and Rwanda) and from Asia, and South Korea in particular, Adesina illustrated how Africa can make agriculture a solid foundation to build a strong food and agro-industrial manufacturing base quickly.

Current estimates indicate that 65% of all the uncultivated arable land in the world that can feed 9 billion people by 2050, lies in Africa. At the same time, the continent spends US $35 billion annually importing food. This has huge implications for Africa not only in terms of lost income and rising unemployment. With the food and agribusiness sector projected to grow from US $330 billion to $1 trillion by 2030, the continent simply cannot afford to unlock this hefty opportunity.

According to Adesina, there is a need for "Growth Enhancement Support" for farmers: a system whereby small-scale farmers are provided with targeted input support to be able to use new technologies. The establishment of large “Staple Crop Processing Zones” and “Agro-industrial zones”, with the required infrastructure and risk-sharing facilities will also be very helpful.

He said that the AfDB has earmarked $800 million for ‘Technologies for African Agricultural Transformation’ (TAAT), targeting 40 million farmers over ten years, to take new agricultural technologies to scale.

TAAT would support people like Noel, a young graduate “agripreneur” from Bukavu in Democratic Republic of Congo who, together with his colleagues, moved into agribusiness just over a year ago. They now generate US $4,000 per week from well packaged cassava flour sold to bakeries for the production bread. The combination of cassava and wheat flour to produce delicious loaves is now a good income generating activity across the continent.

“Our goal is simple: support massive agro-industrial development all across Africa. To make this happen, there is need for well-directed public policies to incentivize the agricultural sector, especially agribusiness and food manufacturing companies,” Adesina emphasized.

For his part, Acting ECA Executive Secretary, Abdalla Hamdok, highlighted the organization’s push for Africa’s agricultural diversification since 1965. He emphasized the need for new policy approaches, a developmental state and development plans to foster Africa’s structural transformation, as well as leadership that provides a clear vision on agro-allied industrialization, and related issues.

The UN Assistant Secretary General and Director of UNDP Regional Bureau for Africa, Abdoulaye Mar Dieye, urged African governments to work together with their bilateral and multilateral partners to support the continent’s agro-allied industrialization agenda. Speaking to Africa’s agricultural potential, M. Dieye said: Agriculture can be the golden gate to Africa’s prosperity; it is the high octane oil that, if properly processed, can radically transform the continent.

In this regards, developed and emerging countries would do well to remove unfair trade barriers, harmful agricultural export subsidies and regional protectionism that limit Africa’s access to markets and turns the continent to a dumping ground.

Prof. Eric Maskin of Harvard University and co-recipient of the 2007 Nobel Prize in economics made a short presentation on why globalization is accelerating inequality instead of reducing it. Maskin called for greater skills education and training, to provide people usually in rural agricultural areas with requisite skill that would enable them get jobs in agro-industry establishments.

“Governments need to get involved in skills training and education in agriculture because that is where the unskilled are mostly located. There is no higher priority than investing in people,” he said.

Distributed by APO on behalf of United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA).