So you think you can farm?


Very few people would find it odd for an inexperienced and untrained person commits to become a commercial farmer. But they will imagine that a person is insane if they want to be a doctor or a lawyer without any training or experience. There is a general appreciation that one needs dedicated years, if not decades of experience, before they can open a surgery or a practice. Besides, you do not get accredited to practice if you do not have the requisite qualifications in medicine and law. It is that accreditation which is the currency they use to gain the trust of their clientele, who in turn, pay a premium as a vote of confidence in their expertise and ability to deliver a service.

But why is farming not viewed in the same light?  Why is it an exception? There is a general lack of appreciation that agriculture is as extremely complex and technical an activity as medical science or law. But the truth, however, is that it is much more technical than what many of us would like to believe. What makes farming unique is that it is both a science and an art – it is inter-disciplinary in nature, and in many instances, a farmer running a typically mixed enterprise has to be an economist, an animal scientist, an agronomist, and an entrepreneur at one and the same time.

Given the multiple skills set that is required by a typical farmer, how many years of training and experience do you imagine a farmer would need?  Yet farming in general, and smallholder farming in particular, is not viewed as a highly sophisticated field of technical expertise, but rather, as a mundane activity that defines our way of life. It is not lifestyle farming in itself that is a problem, but the emerging complacency that has led to a misplaced view that because of a person’s rural upbringing, they do not necessarily need to embrace many of the technical aspects that make farming a sophisticated science and an art form.

And due to this flawed way of thinking, there is a prevailing rationale – especially within smallholder agriculture – that anyone can be a farmer, and one only needs a piece of land and funding – without any advanced education, nor training, nor business acumen. But which investors, if any, will place trust in this type of new and emerging farmer?

The reluctance to invest money in the emerging farmer is not only restricted to the banks and financial institutions, but also extends to the farmers themselves. I have encountered prospective farmers who expect others to invest in ideas and farming projects that they themselves are not prepared to invest in, using whatever meagre resources they may have at their own disposal.

** A version of this article was published in the Farmer’s Weekly of the 10th June 2017

Will Africa “seize the moment” this time around? A critique of Africa’s Green Revolution Forum Annual Meeting

The 2017 African Green Revolution Forum (AGRF) Annual Meeting  will be held in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire from 4th to 8th September 2017, under the theme “Accelerating Africa’s Path to Prosperity: Growing Inclusive Economies and Jobs through Agriculture”.

The 2016 AGRF Annual Meeting was held in Nairobi Kenya and was lauded as one of the most successful gatherings – mainly because the Kenyan President, Uhuru Kenyatta dedicated an unusual and considerable  amount of time in attendance.  He seemed eager to engage delegates and contributed a lot more to the programme  than any other  Head of State that had hosted previous AGRF meetings.

Also present was Rwandan President Paul Kagame, and former Presidents of Nigeria and Tanzania – President Olusegun Obasanjo and President Jakaya Kikwete. The presence of current and previous Heads of States was a big deal, and the excitement and euphoria at the meeting was well justified given the presence of such high profile political figures.

Beyond this massive political support was a number of high profile delegates from research and development institutions, as well as private sector companies, and an array of Africa’s finest talent in agriculture gracing the event. The event was an amazing spectacle, and it was aptly themed “Seize the moment…”. The question is: did Africa seize the moment, OR was the AGRF meeting yet another talk show in which Africa engages in lip service, while we remind each other of how the continent is failing to realize its potential?

Events of this nature follow a familiar script. Delegates come, delegates speak, and delegates go back to their respective places of business. The “high profile” speakers rehash the well-known and oft-repeated challenges of low productivity, poverty and hunger, lack of political will…and so forth and so on. When all is said and done, the meetings provide very little in terms of substance and tangible solutions. This has happened all too often, to the extent that such events have become opportunities for some delegates to vent their own frustration over the continent’s lack of progress.

An example is a 2015 speech given by Ibrahim Mayaki – the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) – at the 11th CAADP Partnership Platform meeting in Johannesburg. Mayaki lambasted Africa’s body politic for pontificating agriculture development without any meaningful action on the ground.

Mayaki understood the shortcomings of politics all too well – he previously served as Prime Minister of Niger from 1997 – 2000 and knew the lack of sincerity of politicians when it comes to agricultural development. His key message was clear: African politicians have fallen into a misguided paradigm of thinking that they can speak their way towards agricultural transformation. “It is not talking that will resolve the problems, its action – its actual policy reforms and effective implementation thereof” Mayaki retorted .

Coming back to the AGRF Annual Meeting, the question then is: Did Africa seize the moment when current and former presidents who were in attendance tried, yet again, to “talk us out of poverty, food insecurity and low productivity”. Did we take the opportunity at the AGRF to remind Presidents Uhuru Kenyatta and Paul Kagame that they cannot simply come and talk Africa into agricultural transformation, but rather, demonstrate to us how they are formulating and implementing credible agricultural policies that seeks to achieve a Green Revolution for Africa?

After the “feel-good” factor of their presence wore out, I was keen on seeing a robust engagement between the Heads of States and the collective of the continent’s critical thinkers to debate some of the more pressing questions around how they see Africa’s transformation evolving over the next decade. But we never got to that point. Instead, President Uhuru Kenyatta announced that he was a proud part-time poultry farmer – much to the applause of the audience. That made me even more incensed.

Not only was President Uhuru Kenyata and Paul Kagame going to give us a talk show – which was televised live on one of Kenya’s local channels, but the AGRF was collectively endorsing the misguided notion that Africa’s hunger and food insecurity will be resolved by part-time farmers. It is not the first time I have seen politicians profess their passion for agriculture, and attempt to make this point by proudly stating that they are part-time farmers.

Anecdotal evidence and in certain instances, main stream media has reported that politicians and technocrats who work in government on the one hand and act as part-time farmers on the other, often use their influence in government to re-direct state resources for the benefit of their part-time farming activities. This is a classic case of conflict of interest.

Empirical research by Dr. Antony Chapoto from the Indaba Agricultural Policy Research Institute (IAPRI) has shown the emergence of this farming class in Zambia –  with supporting evidence which also shows that state-sponsored (or donor-sponsored) input subsidies programmes are subject to wide-spread “soft” corruption.

The most vulnerable resource-poor smallholder farmers, who are supposed to be the target of these subsidies, do not get them because they do not have any political influence. The only way the marginalised resource poor farmers can benefit from government programmes is for them to offer political support to these governments, and join the gravy train of corruption. This morphs into a state-to-government patronage network of resource pillage and the looting of the state. So next time politicians confess their conflict of interest, the most prudent thing to do is to question their integrity.

But the broader question transcends President Uhuru Kenyatta’s confession, and should be asked within the context of Africa’s agricultural development model. Is the Green Revolution for Africa going to be driven by politicians cum part-time farmers? Are we as a continent seriously thinking that we can feed the world through governance structures and political systems that are open to state-sponsored corruption and resource pillage, and systems that will systematically marginalises the most resource poor farmers?

Since the 2016 meeting never bothered to question the politicians on this issue, the AGRF was another “missed opportunity” rather than a “moment seized”. Perhaps this policy and governance question can be interrogated further at the 2017 edition of the AGRF Annual Meeting. But are we courageous enough to confront politicians about their bad corporate governance and policy delinquency when it comes to agricultural development?

I know some of my colleagues will  be too afraid to upset the politicians, and some will argue that the Meeting is itself not an “ideal” platform to get into some of those very uncomfortable debates. But I think we can only seize the moment if we are brave enough to confront the politicians, and demand accountable and credible policies.