Poverty Amidst Opportunity

ON the eve of Christmas in the year 2011, my only Christmas wish was for a thousand fewer people out of the entire world population never to sleep on an empty stomach each and every day thereafter.

Every now and then, I still go back to that wish to remind myself that there are like-minded individuals who would make that a common vision.

While browsing through the Africa Development Bank (ADB) website a couple of weeks ago, I was amazed when reading about the appointment of the then minister of agriculture and rural development of Nigeria, Akinwumi Adesina, as the new president of the ADB.

My heart skipped a beat. I was filled with optimism that Africa would see transformation by Africans and for Africans in the fight against hunger, poverty and towards possible economic emancipation of the millions of African family farmers.

The African agricultural sector which was once considered a sunset industry is quickly becoming attractive to sovereign wealth and private equity funds and key players from the food and agribusiness industry investors in emerging markets, the so- called “land grabbers”.

While others have been nurturing symbiotic relationships with target nations over time, the modern “land grabbers” are courting impoverished, youthful African countries that are searching for silver bullet solutions to solve significantly high levels of unemployment, trade and food insecurity.

A continent that was deemed too dry and infertile during the green revolution technologies in the 1960s, is promptly rotating into becoming the last to meet the needs of populations in emerging markets. Most of the world’s arable land has already gone underneath the plough with devastating effects, whereas Africa holds 52% of the remaining arable land. However, these tracks of land are only in eight African countries.

Not long ago, the World Bank challenged African farmers and agribusiness to build a 1 trillion US dollar industry by the year 2030. This is a massive challenge, especially when faced with stark contrasts of what is really happening on the ground. Africa remains a chronic net importer of basic food items from countries where domestic markets and export subsidies provide an unfair competitive aantage over the emerging African producer.

Several stakeholders, including governments, are now welcoming investors in the agricultural sector to make up for missed opportunities due to under-investment in the sector, while promising investors cheap land and labour.

Are we selling out Africa’s challenge of agriculture becoming a trillion dollar per year industry by 2030 under the premise of cheap labour that ensures revolving doors of poverty? Why hand the knife over when we have the power to draw up our rules on how to cut the cake? Many would concur with me that having a 08h00 to 17h00 job is no longer a ticket out of abject poverty. Of course, it is work, but having a job where one is surviving from pay cheque to pay cheque, without a safety net to even foot an emergency bill, does not create real value.

It is a fact that today’s farmers and agribusiness produce more than enough food to feed an ever increasing human population.

Present day food resources would meet the nutritional needs of the entire world population in accordance with the minimum United Nations standards, if it were distributed more equitably.

In developed countries, household food sovereignty is no longer the trouble of availability the scale has tipped against affordability, whereas, on the African continent, availability and affordability remain significant barriers to food sovereignty, largely as a direct result of income distribution.

Africa has long been branded as a cheap labour investment destination. Today, primary agriculture is and continues to be the most important sector with most of the lowest paid employees.

The very same people who go to great lengths, risking their lives and health to ensure that shops are fully stocked with fruit and loin steaks, are the ones who worry about where their next (and decent) meal will come from.

You do not need to travel far to note that many families, especially those in the agricultural sector, are not earning enough to meet basic nutritional needs and maintain a healthy diet. Yet critics are quick to note that employees in the sector are some of the least productive in the world.

How does one expect to get optimum productivity from undernourished employees who cannot afford a decent meal for themselves and their families? Ultimately, there’s enough proof that cheap is not always good you only get what you pay for.

Source : The Namibian