African agriculture has long been a symbol of the continent’s poverty. Officials considered the hundreds of millions of African smallholder farmers too backward to thrive; the future would arrive not by investing in them but rather by bypassing them. But all that is changing.
In recent years, African agricultural policies have been haphazard and inconsistent. Some countries have neglected smallholders in favor of commercial farmers. Others have given them attention but focused narrowly on increasing their productivity. African farms’ harvests are indeed much smaller than harvests elsewhere, so increasing productivity is important. But agriculture is about more than yields. A vast food system spreads beyond farm and table to touch almost every aspect of life in every society. Making that system in Africa as robust as possible will not merely prevent starvation. It will also fight poverty, disease, and malnutrition; create businesses and jobs; and boost the continent’s economies and improve its trade balances.
Food systems cannot be created quickly out of whole cloth. They tend to evolve incrementally over time. But in digital technology, today’s African leaders have a powerful tool they can deploy to help clear away the primary obstacle to progress: the profound isolation of the vast majority of smallholder farmers. Until now, it has been very hard to get information to or from smallholders, preventing their efficient integration into the broader economy. But mobile communications can shatter this isolation and enable the creation of a new food system suited to contemporary needs. If farsighted leaders seize this opportunity, they can transform African agriculture from a symbol of poverty and backwardness into a powerful engine of economic and social development.
The new African food system should be built around the idea that agriculture is about more than producing calories; it is about changing society. Its five components should be valuing the smallholder farmer, empowering women, focusing on the quality as well as the quantity of food, creating a thriving rural economy, and protecting the environment.
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