Wind of change for African agriculture

One of the victims of the pandemic has been globalisation. Already mortally wounded by populist governments across the world who see bringing jobs home and protectionism as vote winners, COVID-19 has added to that unease of being dependent on others that is the reality of our global economy.

Rock bottom relations between China and the west have propelled the uncoupling of global trade agreements, especially in strategically important areas such as telecoms, energy, infrastructure and of course food.

Just a few years ago, cheap consumer goods from China, belt and road infrastructure and Chinese investment in western 5G and nuclear power seemed to open new possibilities.Today these gifts from China look very different from our locked down economies.

In times of crisis we hunker down and make plans to be self-sufficient and never more so than when it comes to food. They say it is an ill wind that blows no one any good. That phrase came to mind when reading about the loon balloons from Google’s parent company Alphabet, drifting over Kenya, beaming 4G network coverage to remote regions and transforming economic activity, much of which will be in agriculture.

Africa has a long track record of using new technology to accelerate social and economic change. Financial inclusion at speed, taking energy to off-grid communities and helping farmers improve crop yields and secure better prices have all been made possible in a continent where there are famously more mobile phones than toothbrushes.

Whether this is an urban myth or not,the point remains that digital technology has transformed Africa in unique ways not seen elsewhere in the world. There is a coming together of new fintech, 4G, AI and the internet of things, with growing political recognition of the importance of African agriculture that could herald a new age of African food production.

Food resilience has been highlighted by the pandemic and other natural shocks such as locusts and fall armyworms, but Governments are also seeing beyond to the economic and vote winning potential of supporting agribusiness, particularly as the continent begins to note opportunities from the African Continental Free Trade Area.

Malawi’s new President, Lazarus Chakwera’s pledge to reduce fertiliser prices as one of three key policy pledges, was a significant recognition of the political, economic and social importance of agriculture. One after another, African nations are rapidly waking up to the potential of agribusiness, particularly given the alarm call of COVID-19 and its challenges for a continent that still heavily relies on food imports.

The pandemic may well prove to be both a tipping point and a springboard for Africa to realise the full potential of its agribusiness sector.