Food and water security in sub-Saharan Africa remain elusive despite the region’s abundance of arable land and untapped water resources. In the final symposium of a two-year series on global food policy and food security hosted by the Center on Food Security and the Environment, water expert John Briscoe drew upon his many years of international field experience (including a 20-year career at the World Bank) to assess Africa's situation and suggest ways forward (event information and transcripts here.)

Improvements in infrastructure, agricultural productivity and investment are crucial for tapping Africa’s agricultural and development potential, according to Briscoe. And middle-income countries, such as Brazil, may have the most lessons to share.

Dams and the quest for water security

“Africa’s infrastructure is lousy,” said Briscoe, an environmental engineer and director of Harvard’s Water Security Initiative. “Crumbling roads, patchy supplies of electricity, and inadequate water storage are some of Africa’s biggest impediments to growth.”

Sub-Saharan Africa has tremendous surface and groundwater resources, yet only four to five percent of cultivated land is irrigated. Most agricultural land is rain-fed and often limited to a three to six month rainy season. For many countries in Africa, economic growth and rainfall are closely linked.

Africa has the potential to bring an additional 20 million hectares or more of land under irrigation, but water infrastructure is expensive and finding funding has become more difficult. Historically, the World Bank, the U.S. and other rich countries have helped, but funding dams is now unpopular; despite the fact the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River supplies the U.S. with 1000 days of stored water. Pakistan, in comparison, has only 30 days of storage on the Indus.

Meanwhile, middle-income countries (namely, Brazil, India and China) are building infrastructure for water-enabled growth, and are filling the funding gap left by rich countries. Whereas the World Bank now finances about five dams, the Chinese finance over 300 dams outside of China in the developing world.

Sub-Saharan Africa has benefited from some of these projects, but still contends with an international NGO and donor community resistant to dam development.  

Big is beautiful – the case of Brazil

Sub-Saharan Africa’s agricultural growth rate remains very low. In some countries, yields for staple crops like maize are actually falling. Low levels of fertilizer application are part of the problem.

Nigeria, for example, uses a tenth as much fertilizer as its Indian counterparts. Without enough fertilizer crops fail from lack of nutrients. Transportation costs and poor trade networks push up the price of fertilizer making it difficult for farmers to afford.

In addition to fertilizer, Africa needs people who have the knowledge to increase productivity, said Briscoe.

Briscoe shared a telling observation of a Ghanaian CEO of a multinational company: ‘Once the best and the brightest Ghanaians went into engineering. Now they become anthropologists because NGOs dominate the job market and this is the skill they want.’ 

Briscoe pointed to Brazil as a compelling case for greater investment in agriculture and agricultural research. Between 1985 and 2006, Brazilian agricultural production grew by 77 percent.

“Much of this growth did not come from cutting down the Amazon, but by doing things smarter than it did before,” said Briscoe. “Over the last thirty years, through financial crises and changing political parties, Brazil sustained public investment in agricultural research.”

Better informed farming practices led to improved soil quality, high yielding grasslands, and the transformation of soybeans into a tropical crop. Brazil is now the largest exporter of soybeans.

Additionally, Brazil pioneered the use of “no-till” agriculture, now practiced by over 50 percent of its farmers. The culmination of these activities increased productivity while farming more sustainably.

An important contribution to Brazil’s productivity has been its utilization of genetically modified crops. Brazil chose not to eulogize the “small and organic” philosophy of many NGOs, but embraced new technology. Middle-income countries are currently eight of the 10 largest users of GMOs.

Brazil was also pragmatic when it came to scale. Brazilian farms are large. 30 percent (1.6m) are large commercial operations producing 76 percent of the country’s output. Many environmentalists and small farmers perceived large agrobusiness as the enemy, but these large enterprises were also the grey geese laying the golden eggs for the country.

Understanding that there are no silver bullet solutions, the Brazilian government sought innovative ways to support smaller farmers. For example, concessions for a large irrigation project in the Pontal were awarded to agribusiness operators that integrated at least 25 percent of irrigable land to small farmers as part of the company’s production chain.

By 2009, Brazil had become the world’s number one exporter of orange juice, sugar, chicken, coffee, and beef.

“Brazil’s success did not happen over night,” said Briscoe. “African countries must be patient and persistent, particularly with respect to public investment in agricultural research…and pragmatic and realistic about scale.”

Role for foreign investors

In the face of low levels of public investment in agriculture and non-existent or shallow domestic capital markets, there is a role for foreign direct investment (FDI) to play. FDI projects, such as international land deals, can help create implementation capacity by bringing capital and know-how, creating employment and developing infrastructure.

“But it is easier said than done,” said Briscoe. “Foreign investors, including the World Bank's International Finance Corporation (IFC), have struggled in sub-Saharan Africa because farming is a complex business.”

Briscoe noted a shortage of indigenous entrepreneurs, the small size of potential investments, and lack of access to markets have constrained IFC engagement and performance in sub-Saharan Africa.

While there are no shortcuts for Africa, Briscoe insisted optimism and a determination to move faster are needed. Africa must decide whether to follow the prescriptions of the advocacy community or, like Brazil, pursue an opposite strategy.

“Will Africa focus on its real problems, ‘the politics of the belly’?” asked Briscoe. “Or will it succumb again, to the western ‘politics of the mirror’?”