By: Princess Ekwi Ajide

If we sit and do nothing, young Africans will continue making this journey outside the shores of the continent to look for jobs — jobs that we have, ironically, largely exported through our inordinate food imports, which cost the continent a staggering $40bn annually. Inaction will see this cost almost triple to an estimated $110bn by 2025.
Fortunately, these trends can be reversed — and they should be. Indulge me here, in my back-of-the envelope calculation, which indicates that if that same $40bn a year was invested to produce food within Africa, we would create employment for more than 11m young people each year, paying them wages equivalent to what they would get in Europe. This would transform the lives of almost all the 10m-12m young people entering the job market in Africa every year — 70 per cent of whom cannot find employment.

Our choices are, therefore, clear cut: continue as a net food importer, and face peril; or seize the business opportunities presented by the continent’s food market — valued at $300bn, and projected to rise to $1tn by 2030 — to build wealth and prosperity through agriculture.
For me, there is only one logical choice: taking charge of our destiny. To do this, we must improve systems, infrastructure, policies and institutions that support agriculture. There are no excuses for not doing so. Multiple lessons abound from regions that have launched their economic success on the back of a strong foundation in agriculture.
The most recent examples are from Southeast Asia, where governments that consistently invested 15 to 20 per cent of their national budgets in agriculture for 10 to 15 years ushered in a period of rapid economic growth that quickly diversified to industries and services. At this level of investment, it is possible to unlock private sector potential in ways that would sustain the agriculture sector with minimal public intervention.

I am encouraged by the many positive signs of progress that we are seeing across the continent. The private sector is stepping up to the plate in a big way. As an example, the partnership between DSM, the government of Rwanda and a number of other partners including the UN World Food Programme and CHI comes to mind. This joint venture saw the setting up of a $60m, baby food factory in Kigali. Besides improving access to nutritious food for babies and mothers, the company has directly created jobs for hundreds of Rwandans and offered a market for close to 9,000 local farmers, giving them a stable and sustainable income. DSM is also in very good business; in fact, they cannot satisfy the regional demand right now.
This success can be attributed directly to strong leadership in the public and private sectors. Similar examples abound in other countries including Ethiopia where, owing to committed investment in agriculture, poverty is reducing at a rate of 5 per cent a year.

For avoidance of any doubt, I am not trying to downplay the complexity of issues that underpin a successful agriculture sector. The emphasis is on possibilities and, more importantly, on the need for determined, visionary and unwavering leadership that is critical to making agriculture work.
There will be no shortcuts out of the poverty that grips a majority of our people. Whatever choices we make, a population with some spending power is critical for the success of Africa’s economies — and, right now, for the majority of our people, a thriving agricultural sector would provide that opportunity.

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