Rapid urbanization across Africa and growing inequality are threatening to increase social tensions and further destabilize a continent that is already home to 29 fragile states, says Akinwumi Adesina, Nigeria’s Minister of Agriculture.
The solution, he believes, lies in smart planning and a new approach to agricultural development.
Adesina suggests the root of many of the continent’s problems—perhaps ironically—is rapid economic growth.
“The growth we’ve had is great, but it’s creating a number of major trends that are very worrying,” he says. Widening inequality, between countries and within countries, is creating political and social fragility across the continent.
Today, Adesina says, 53 percent of African countries are considered to be fragile states.
Raid economic growth, which tends to be concentrated in urban areas, has also prompted a surge in migration into cities.
“There is nothing bad about having people migrating from rural areas into urban areas, providing those urban areas can cope with the deluge,” says Adesina, who is one of eight candidates competing to take over this year from Donald Kaberuka as the president of the African Development Bank.
“In Africa is that is not the case. You have a lot of people moving into urban areas.
They have wild expectations when they get there and with so many unskilled people moving to [cities] you essentially end up with an ocean of poor people surrounding islands of highly concentrated wealth. You have big slums.”
The other serious threat to Africa’s prospects—one that becomes all the more stark in light of the growing prosperity of the continent’s urban elite—is unemployment.
“The growth in Africa has not been able to create the jobs that are needed,” particularly among young people, Adesina says. With a lot of young people entering the labor market but not finding jobs, “it’s creating all this disenfranchised youth across Africa,” Adesina comments.
The unemployment problem is particularly pressing, Adesina says, given that much of the terrorism in Africa is arising from rural areas that are very poor, with high resource degradation and few employment opportunities.
Simply investing in boosting raw agricultural output isn’t enough, though, he believes. Africa already produces far more agricultural products than it can process and a vast amount of produce goes to waste – by some estimates as much as 50% of the continent’s agricultural output. Poor infrastructure, ineffective communications, a lack of warehousing capacity and limited access to processing facilities are among the key reasons for the high level of wastage.
“Across Africa the food processing industries are concentrated in the urban areas,” says Adesina, “so you are always moving the raw produce out of rural areas. Because of poor infrastructure or delays in transport, the losses become very high.”
Instead, he argues, African countries should invest in developing processing capacity in the rural areas.
Nigeria has been doing just that, providing incentives to encourage companies to set up what it calls Staple Crop Processing Zones. The country has finalized a plan for fourteen such zones, which Adesina says should add $9 billion to Nigeria’s GDP as well as encouraging the development of better-integrated infrastructure in rural areas.
“By bringing the private sector into the rural economic space, to process and add value to the products within the rural communities, you create markets for the farmers, you create jobs in rural areas, you reduce losses, you build supply chains, and you move finished products out,” he explains.
Adesina’s views echo those of Morocco’s Agriculture Minister, Aziz Akhannouch, who told World Street Journal (WSJ) Frontiers in November last year that governments have a key role to play in attracting private investment into agriculture.
Nigeria’s efforts are already bearing fruit. Domestic drinks maker Dansa has committed to invest $40 million in a tomato processing plant in Kano state that will be the largest such facility in sub-Saharan Africa.
Adesina says the country’s agriculture sector has attracted some $5.6 billion in investment over the past three-and-a-half years, with the bulk of that investment coming from Nigerian companies looking to expand out of the oil and gas sector.
“We’ve seen a lot of global companies also coming into Nigeria in partnership with others,” he adds.
Adesina is keen to see the concept rolled out across Africa and says that the Democratic Republic of Congo is already setting up similar agricultural processing zones. “If you use agriculture as an engine to revive rural economies you create new prosperity zones for the people and that will have an impact on reducing insecurity problems.”