Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Agriculture must play 'critical role' in Africa's future

By Robyn Curnow and Teo Kermeliotis, CNN
updated 7:37 PM EST, Wed February 1, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A community initiative in South Africa helps poor farmers make a living by growing trees
  • More than two-thirds of African countries are net importers of agricultural products
  • Experts call African governments to invest in agriculture research and infrastructure

(CNN) -- The sweet aroma of blossoming orange trees wafts through the air as a white-haired figure moves slowly along the green-choked path. Aided by a yard stick, 85-year-old Sam Motsuenyane walks through his citrus orchard in South Africa's Winterveldt area, occasionally stopping to check the lush fruits hanging from the trees.

The scene strikes a sharp contrast to what the veteran agriculturalist encountered when he returned to the area in early 2000 to retire following a successful career as a South African diplomat and leading banker.

Weeds and bushes had reclaimed the deserted plots as much of the land laid fallow and under-utilized due to lack of resources and the local farmers' economic hardship.

"I decided that something had to be done and with my agricultural background, I thought I could perhaps initiate something that could help the people," says Motsuenyane.

As a result, the farming pioneer, whose first business was a plant nursery in 1963, embarked on a mission to show small plot owners how to lift themselves out of poverty by growing orange trees on a commercial scale.

If we do not create sufficient employment opportunities in our country we will certainly end up in a very terrible situation.
Sam Motsuenyane, WCP

See also: Agriculture 'next big thing' in Africa, says World Bank expert

He drummed up private sector financial support to buy orange trees and in 2002 he launched the Winterveldt Citrus Project, a community initiative which enables small holders to make a living and become self-sufficient by training them how to work the land.

So far, the project has helped to set up some 100 small farms.

"He helped us a lot, we didn't know anything about oranges," says Pauline Lueba, a smallholder who today earns a steady income by selling the oranges from her 800 trees to major retail chains across South Africa.

"There's enough income, I can manage to pay my helpers, we even eat there and buy fertilizers with that money," she adds.

Commercial farming is a major industry in South Africa -- it distributes produce all over the world while Johannesburg's fruit market sells about a million tons of goods every year.

But the picture is quite different in other parts of the continent -- more than two-thirds of African countries are net importers of agricultural products, with the continent importing $50 billion worth of food every year, according to U.N. figures.

See also: Africa can feed itself in a generation

Geoffrey Livingston, regional economist for the eastern and southern Africa division at the International Fund for Agricultural Development says these mass imports represent a "huge missed opportunity for African producers."

"This is related to very poor yields in a lot of African countries that make it a requirement for countries to go out of their borders and go outside of the continent to meet food requirements for their people," he says.

They are views echoed by Microsoft chairman Bill Gates who wrote in his 2012 letter, "Given the central role that food plays in human welfare and national stability, it is shocking - not to mention short-sighted and potentially dangerous - how little money is spent on agricultural research."

On the whole, only 3.5% of Africa's arable land is irrigated and about 9% of world fertilizer is used in the continent, according to the U.N.

Livingston says the low levels of African productivity are linked to a lack of investment in agriculture by African governments and donor organizations over the last two decades.

He notes, however, that a change is taking place now.

On the whole, only 3.5% of Africa's arable land is irrigated and about 9% of world fertilizer is used in the continent
U.N. report

"In the last three or four years there's been a renaissance of interest by those African governments and donors regarding the critical role agriculture plays in economic development," he says.

"We are seeing that African governments are now spending more for basic research, for applied research, extension services and we feel there will be a pay-off in the medium-term for this increased investment."

Read more: 'Silent crisis' as food prices fuel hunger in Kenya

Livingston also calls governments across the continent to focus their efforts on improving transport infrastructure in order to boost productivity.

"Thirty-four per cent of sub-Saharan Africans live more than five hours away from a market town of 5,000 people," he says. "Increasing market access to particularly improve field roads and improve access to electricity for processing is absolutely fundamental to improving agricultural productivity and increasing economic growth in these countries."

Back in the Winterveldt fields, Motsuenyane also calls on South African leaders to take a greater role in encouraging people to work on the land.

"The government has to do a great deal to rekindle the enthusiasm which once existed in agriculture," Motsuenyane, who ran the first black-owned bank in post-Apartheid South Africa, says.

Passionate about farming, Motsuenyane believes it's smallholdings that have the potential to revitalize communities and help curb South Africa's soaring levels of unemployment.

"If we do not create sufficient employment opportunities in our country we will certainly end up in a very terrible situation," he says. "We must skill the black people to use that land in a way that can enable them to become job creators as well as contributors to the development of the country."

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
Marketplace Africa
updated 2:15 PM EDT, Mon May 26, 2014
Kinshasa, the sprawling capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, has installed two talking robots to help regulate the city's hectic traffic.
updated 6:21 AM EST, Thu February 20, 2014
A South African app allows buyers to pay for goods using their phone, without having to worry about carrying cash or credit cards.
updated 10:23 AM EST, Wed February 19, 2014
A Zambian computer tablet -- known as the ZEduPad -- is trying to open up the country's information highway.
updated 5:57 AM EST, Thu January 9, 2014
South Africa may be the dominant force in Africa's wine economy, but other countries are making inroads in the industry.
updated 6:55 AM EST, Mon January 6, 2014
Commuters aboard an overloaded passenger train 03 February 2004, celebrate after arrival at the train station in the centre of the capital Nairobi.
A $5 billion Chinese-funded railway project in Kenya could transform transport in east Africa.
updated 7:27 PM EST, Thu December 12, 2013
African astronomers want world-class observatories to inspire young scientists and build a tech economy.
updated 5:29 AM EST, Wed November 27, 2013
A new report praises South Africa's economic transformation since apartheid. But enormous challenges remain.
updated 6:56 AM EST, Tue November 19, 2013
Landlocked Burundi is looking to compete on the international stage as one of Africa's most prestigious coffee producers and exporters.
updated 12:18 PM EST, Fri November 22, 2013
zword app zombies
From zombie spelling games to walking snails, Africa's mobile gaming industry is taking off across the continent from Uganda to South Africa.
updated 6:46 AM EST, Fri November 8, 2013
Ethiopia is turning to renewable energy technology as the East African country looks to become a powerhouse for its regional partners.
updated 9:22 AM EST, Wed November 13, 2013
Animated cartoons are helping Kenyan companies to engage with audiences and lure international investors.
updated 7:16 AM EST, Mon November 4, 2013
Downtown Johannesburg -- once a no-go zone riddled with crime -- is undergoing urban restoration.
updated 10:12 AM EDT, Wed October 16, 2013
Using helicopters and night-vision, crime syndicates are taking rhino poaching to a new level and conservation parks are struggling to keep up.
updated 5:27 AM EDT, Thu October 10, 2013
Eko Atlantic city design concept
A lack of infrastructure has hindered Africa's development, but a series of megaprojects could change that.
Each week Marketplace Africa covers the continent's macro trends and interviews a major player from the region's business community.
ADVERTISEMENT