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Africa: Fostering rural development and job creation 0

Sep30

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Brussels – Despite the Maputo Declaration adopted in 2003 and through which the African Heads of States announced to increase public investment in agriculture to a minimum of 10 per cent of the national budgets, it was necessary to wait until 2008 and until food riots for African governments and International Community  to realize the pivotal challenges represented by food security and rural development in Africa.

But the indifference that has been nourished over the last three decades by the African executives towards agriculture and important challenges such as climate change, food security, population growth, globalization of land grabbing, youth unemployment, decline of investment research, migration and urbanization, represent the main obstacles to the ‘re-birth’ of the African farmer.

Countries such as Mali, Senegal, Ethiopia or Niger, reached the target fixed by the Maputo Declaration, but  there’s still a lot of work to do. According to the last report published in December 2010 by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) on rural poverty, “Sub-Saharan Africa  represents a third of the extremely poor rural population in the world, which is to say 306 million people against 268 million people at the beginning of the century. Although in this region the percentage of people living in extreme poverty, decreased from 65 to 62 per cent, it is still higher than the rest of the world.”

Nevertheless, in Africa agriculture represents 30-50 per cent of GDP in countries such as Mali, Niger, Ghana, Tanzania or Uganda. The agricultural sector employs most of African labour force and accounts for 63 per cent of rural household income (against 62 per cent in Asia and 56 per cent in Latin America). This is in a scenario where the remunerated labour markets are very limited, the working condition are extremely hard, the possibility to improve life standards of living and educational attainment are restrained, the investments are widely inadequate and the productivity is reduced. All these factors push young people to leave rural areas, to satisfy their hunger of social recognition in the cities.

Now more than ever, job creation for rural growth represents a pivotal challenge for the destiny of Africans living in rural areas, whether they are farmers or not. Today, new opportunities are rising, particularly in the field of renewable energy, provision of services and food production. Job creation and rural growth have been central to the debates that enlivened  the conference organised in September by the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA), an organisation established in 2000 under the Cotonou Agreement between the ACP (African, Caribbean and Pacific) Group of States and the European Union, and whose major task is to develop and provide services that improve access to information for agricultural and rural development.

The Director of CTA, Michael Hailu (from Ethiopia), opened the conference underlining three aspects: “Firstly, agricultural development—although critical—is not sufficient to bring about poverty alleviation and prosperity in developing countries. We need a holistic approach that brings together other sectors such as infrastructure, education and health with agriculture. Secondly, political will and vision are key in bringing about rural transformation. Thirdly, it is important to document practical interventions that have a measureable impact, for instance on rural employment and try to scale them up.”

NEPAD Chief executive officer, Dr. Ibrahim Assane Mayaki, insisted on “the importance of African governments’ planning capacity.  With the structural adjustments policies implemented by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, this capacity had been compromised, and it has been re-habilitated today also  thanks to the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) promoted by NEPAD, which encourages a regional approach to the agricultural challenges in order to facilitate the coordination among national plans. The agricultural development cannot be made without the support of the State” said Mayaki.

If African countries are confronted by single challenges, they can be inspired by the strategies adopted by the emerging countries. Felicity Proctor, a British independent consultant and lead adviser to the 2010 International Conference on the Dynamics of rural transformation in emerging economies held in New Delhi, presented four case studies: South Africa, India, Brazil and China.  Rural societies of these countries comprise 25 per cent of the world’s population. “Thanks to important investments, good governance systems and efficient public programmes, important progress have been made.”

Indeed, “hundreds of millions have been lifted out of poverty; food production has increased  since the famines of the late 1950s and early 1960s; natural resources and ecosystems can no longer be destroyed in obscurity and with impunity. Furthermore the efforts that governments have invested in education increased the number of young women and men who were able to attend school”, this favours the development of a  qualified labour-force which is able to strengthen productivity.

The case of Brazil has drawn the attention of the audience to Elisangela dos Santos Araujo, General Coordinator of the Federation of Rural Workers of Brazil. Founded in 2004, FETRAF covers more than 600 unions and union associations in over a thousand municipalities, representing nearly 500,000 associated family farmers. “Our goal is to influence the policy of the public authorities we work with”, said Araujo.

During the Lula era, FETRAF took advantage of the wide programme of social and agricultural reforms implemented by the former President of Brazil, to promote a large amount of agricultural projects which are also connected to the educational sector (through the development of Family Farming Technical School or training young people from family smallholdings in the agricultural and human sciences in the State of Sao Paolo), to housing program (through the National Rural Housing Programme, which had already delivered 30,000 homes) or trade sector (thanks to the unions and organisations, family farms have been organised into production and marketing cooperatives in such a way that smallholder-produced foodstuff are used to supply sectors of the population experiencing food-insecurity and are used to build up food stocks).

As a matter of fact, the ability of producers’ organisations to influence the development and the implementation of national strategies in favour of rural areas and agricultural productivity, not only strengthens African farmers’ ability to develop economies of scale at a production level and at a marketing level, but represents a crucial issue.

The National Smallholder Farmers’ Association of Malawi (NASFAM) is a good example. In Malawi, agriculture employs 80 per cent of the active population and accounts for 63,7 per cent of rural household income. “But smallholder farmers have to face too many challenges” said the Chief executive officer of NASFAM, Dyborn Chilonga. “The access to credit is very limited and interest rates are high; the prices of inputs are unaffordable and it is very difficult to have access to that. In such an environment, smallholder farmers struggle because they go individually into farming business and, when they go up the agricultural value chain, fail to sustain themselves”.

NASFAM was created in 90’s, as a consequence of this situation and due to the lack of voice to defend smallholder political and economic interests, with the aim to build a farmer-directed business system where farmers promote and market cash and food crops such as chilies, groundnuts, tobacco, cotton, rice, soya, and beans. “The only best way is for the smallholder farmers to work in organized groups” said Chilong. “Such groups can leverage them to enter into value chains with confidence and have greater influence and get more sustainable benefits”.

Today, NASFAM has 14 Association Management Centres with a national network of 43 Associations which have 291 employees, and collaborate with 108,000 farmers to form and manage cohesive grass roots farmer groups for the commercialisation of different crops which are sold to domestic and international markets.

“We provide farmers with warehouses where crops are transformed and stored, and we support our associations in terms of organising transport to markets. NASFAM also brings benefits of economies of scale and bargaining for better marketing terms. Finally, part of the crops produced by our members are sold on international markets, where fair-trade customers such as Twin Trading Ltd play a key role in buying groundnuts from NASFAM for retailers in the UK such as Co-op, Tesco, Sainsbury’s as well as the own label  Liberation”.

Even if the experience of NASFAM is a success story, the experts that were at the CTA briefing agreed that agriculture alone cannot alleviate rural poverty. The last to give a different opinion is Paul Barera, the founder and Executive Director of Rwanda Telecentre Network (RTN).

After an experience in the Rwandan government as Deputy Mayor in charge of socio-economic development in local administration, Barera discovered a passion for rural development. “Unfortunately, the vast majority of Rwanda farmers has always been ignored by service providers, due to their poor purchasing power and their geographical isolation. This scenario has led to the situation where rural population are being denied and deprived of various latest developments in ICTs and other socio-economic amenities”.

Following the document ‘Vision 2020’, a development strategy plan presented by the Rwandan Government with the aim of transforming the country’s economy from being largely dependent on agriculture to concentrating on providing knowledge and information services, in 2004 Barera launched the first ‘telecentre’ in Nyamata (about 30 kilometres south of Kigali).

“The aim of this project is not only to bridge the digital divide but also to narrow the ‘delivery gap’ among government, business and social services. Furthermore, the unemployment problem of the country is also addressed to a large extent because of direct and indirect job opportunities created by the project”.

Each telecentre is operated by a village based entrepreneur or community based cooperative which have between five and twenty computers and other equipment such as scanners, printers, televisions, CD ROMs and video players. The centres offer a wide range of public and private services related to agriculture, e-government, banking, insurance, health, e-learning, rural business process outsourcing etc. So far 150 centers are operational and each centre employs at least 3 people. But for Barera it’s not enough. “Following the agreement reached with the government, RTN has set out to create a countrywide network of 1000 ICT centres by the end of 2015, one telecentre for every Rwandan village”.

The ambitions of Paul Barera represent an answer to the will of an army of African rural entrepreneurs to change the image of the rural society in Africa, which is too often perceived as backwards. African governments and private investors are forewarned. As far as Greek philosopher Xenophon remembered in his treatise Oeconomicus in the 4th century BC, “agriculture is the mother and the creator of all other arts: when agriculture is well conducted, all other arts prosper; when agriculture is neglected, all other arts decay, on the land and on the sea”.

By Joshua Massarenti (Afronline.org)
Illustration by Glez

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