Beatrice Nkatha’s favourite expression is “sorghum is money”. Her ramshackle one-storey wooden store is packed from floor to ceiling with bags of seed, fertiliser and pesticide. Staff attend to customers who peer through a tiny hatch at the front.
The cramped store in Mukothima, a sleepy town about 260km north-east of Nairobi, might not seem like much. But it is helping to transform the lives of thousands of farmers in Africa. Before Ms Nkatha came along, most locals were scratching a subsistence living.
They might sell a few bags of maize or some mung beans, but there was no reliable market. The nearest sizeable town of Meru was a bone-jolting 90 minutes along a mud road. Farmers mostly waited for trucks to show up offering to buy their produce — take it or leave it.
When Ms Nkatha, an entrepreneurial 38-year-old, founded Sorghum Pioneer Agencies, all that changed. She became the sole supplier in the area to East African Breweries, a Nairobi-based regional brewer majority owned by Diageo. It wanted sorghum — lots of it — to make low-cost beer.
For her 14,000 farmers that meant a guaranteed income. They also gained knowledge about what strain of sorghum to plant and techniques to maximise yields on their small plots. Ms Nkatha sells them seeds and fertiliser, often on credit, rents them the use of a tractor and thresher, and even advances loans to pay school fees. Japhet Kibaara is one of her farmers. At 61, his life is just starting.
“I used to be dirt poor,” he says. Now, he adds, with a little jig, he has a cow and some goats and his wife is “looking good”, thanks to the money he spends on her. His eight surviving children — five others died — are in work or education. Africa is the fastest urbanising continent. But 60 per cent of its people still live in the countryside, some of them using farming techniques little altered for centuries.
Overall, yields have improved. But advances have lagged behind those in Asia. Africa should be an agricultural powerhouse. Instead, it imports roughly $40bn net of food. It may seem insensitive to talk about cash crops and food exports when, once again, famine is stalking Somalia, South Sudan and parts of Nigeria.
But hunger in Africa has more to do with bad policies than bad weather or bad harvests. Above all, Africa needs to think of farming as a business. With properly executed policies, the continent could easily be a net exporter of food.
That would bring multiple benefits. It would improve the livelihood of the half a billion people living on the land, encouraging them to have smaller families, which would in turn boost living standards for the next generation. From a macroeconomic standpoint, food-exporting countries could save valuable foreign exchange and begin the process of capital accumulation that launched productivity miracles from Taiwan to South Korea.
How can this be brought about? Solutions vary from region to region, and country to country. But a few things stand out, says Agnes Kalibata, a former agriculture minister of Rwanda, a country that has prioritised agriculture, and now the president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, a Nairobi-based non-governmental organisation.
She mentions clearer land tenure rules so that farmers can invest with confidence; more scientific use of specifically selected nutrients to prevent soil degradation; more rational supply of seeds to ensure they suit local soil and climate; better rural links so that farmers can transport surpluses to market (if it rots one year, they won’t bother to grow it the next); and more irrigation in a continent where 96 per cent of farmland is rain fed. Above all, says Ms Kalibata, governments need to treat farming seriously, establishing an environment where farmers have incentives to grow and the private sector to invest.
Too many African leaders, she says, see farming as “a backyard, not an opportunity for development”. If the west wants to help, it has no need to buy poor farmers a goat or pay 5 cents more for a bar of chocolate. Better to scrap farming subsidies and allow African farmers to compete in its markets.
As for African leaders, they should drop the fantasy that technology means they can somehow jump from poverty to wealth without attending to their farms. They should spend less time talking about “leapfrogging” and the “fourth industrial revolution”. Instead, they should roll up their sleeves, pull on their farming boots and start talking about the revolution that really counts: the green one.