Rethinking the future of the agriculture sector through sustainability and modernisation

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For many countries across Africa, agriculture remains one of the most important sectors of the economy. Agriculture accounts for 14% of total GDP in sub-Saharan Africa, and a majority of the continent’s population is employed in the sector. In addition, export crops such as coffee, tobacco, oranges, fruit and cotton are important sources of foreign exchange for every country on the continent. While Africa’s population is projected to more than double by 2050, agriculture is more than ever, essential for the future of the continent, but also of the whole world.

Oxford Business Group launched its latest Focus Report: Agriculture in Africa 2021, in collaboration with OCP Group, that analyses the opportunities and challenges for the agricultural sector and different key aspects such as fostering an agri-tech ecosystem, empowering farmers, promoting entrepreneurship and the use of fertilisers. In this context, we had the pleasure to talk to Mohamed Anouar Jamali, CEO of OCP Africa on some of these topics and gather his thoughts on what the future holds for the sector. Mr. Jamali, who holds a PhD in Supply Chain Management from University of Laval, shared his views on the current state of the agriculture sector in Africa, namely on promoting sustainability to fight climate change, boosting innovation, entrepreneurship and the use technology as a growth driver, as well as on the opportunities brought by the Covid-19 pandemic to strengthen the value chain in the continent. To find more about this conversation, watch our latest vidcast.

See below the English translation of the audio:

BERNARDO BRUZZONE: Hello, welcome to OBG talks. My name is Bernardo Bruzzone, and I’m Africa’s Regional Editor at Oxford Business Group. Thank you for joining. Today we'll be discussing with Mohammad Anwar Jamali, CEO of OCP Africa, some of the key takeaways of our recently published Focus Report: Agriculture in Africa 2021, made in partnership with OCP Group. Welcome, Mr Jamali, it is a pleasure to have you with us in the framework of the launch of our most recent report. How do you envision a more sustainable and resilient agriculture sector in Africa to address the threat of climate change?

MOHAMED ANOUAR JAMALI: Thank you for your invitation. First of all, I need to recall that agriculture is essential to growth and development in this continent. Climate change, if not addressed in time, could destabilise local markets, leading to higher volatility in African food crop yields, but which can in turn lead to volatility in prices, thus hindering the sector's development. In the face of climate change, greater resilience of African agriculture is required. To achieve this an improvement in the seed production systems is needed to be able to provide to African farmers with new seed varieties that are adapted to the new climate conditions. Also, agricultural techniques that are more adapted to the ecological conditions prevailing in the various regions must be chosen. These techniques must contribute to restoring, but also preserving the soil and optimising the use of water. Secondly, investments in irrigation are required to enable African farmers to maintain yields, even in periods when weather conditions are favourable. Finally, investments in logistics infrastructure to enable the storage of crops, to avoid losses, but also to develop a more balanced management by farmers of the stocks of their crops which are intended either for consumption or for sale on the markets. We're talking about investments in logistics infrastructure, but also investments in transport infrastructure, because the idea is to better connect farmers to the market, which would in turn help these same farmers to sell their products at fair prices. All of these improvements can build resilience to the harmful effects of potential climate change. Briefly, within the OCP Group and through our engineers and agronomists in the various countries where we operate, our approach is based first and foremost on research and development, which is carried out jointly with local universities, agronomic institutes and the competent authorities. This research aims to strengthen the resilience of agricultural systems and specifically, just to give an example, through the soil mapping that we carry out to assess the level of fertility of a given soil and as a result of this idea, we recommend fertiliser formulas that are adapted to ensure better efficiency of agricultural inputs, among others. This responds to a principle that is very dear to us within the OCP Group, namely a well-thought-out fertilisation that is adapted to the soil, to the crops, to the agricultural practices, but that is also adapted to the different climates. 

BRUZZONE: Very good, thank you very much. Africa is a continent that has a very young, dynamic and innovative population. According to you, how can governments and the private sector push for more innovation and entrepreneurship in the African agricultural sector in view of obtaining more value added? 

JAMALI: A firm commitment from our governments is needed to boost innovation and entrepreneurship in agriculture on our continent. Public authorities can act through several levers, if you allow me, I will mention three that in my opinion, are fundamental. Firstly, we need to further strengthen human capital at all levels of the agricultural innovation ecosystem. This requires massive investment in training and capacity building for all actors in the ecosystem. Furthermore, it is a question of developing human capital, but also of supporting the rich ecosystem of start-ups by encouraging the involvement of young people in incubators and accelerators. It is also a question of promoting the success stories of agricultural entrepreneurship, which is the only way, in my opinion, to encourage these young future African entrepreneurs. The second way to encourage innovation among farmers is to bring digital technologies to less-favoured regions, to ensure a greater impact. Today, unfortunately, digitalisation only concerns farmers who are part of more integrated value chains. To achieve equitable growth, these digital technologies need to be more inclusive. In this context, digital literacy programmes, training in digital technologies applied to agriculture, among others, should be implemented. The third pillar is, in my opinion, the creation of consortia or strong alliances between key players in the agricultural ecosystem or value chain. The challenge is to promote co-investment. The challenge is for all stakeholders to share experiences, but also knowledge. Experience has shown that real opportunities for an innovative and digitalised agriculture come from consolidating this kind of partnership around the farmer, but also from the mobilization of all actors, such as governments, NGOs, investors, universities and research institutes. 

BRUZZONE: Mr Jamali, you mentioned the importance of technology in Africa today. Africa is going through a digital transformation that is impacting all sectors of the economy and agriculture is no exception. According to you how can technology transform the agricultural sector in Africa? 

JAMALI: First of all, let me remind you that the Covid-19 pandemic, which we've all been experiencing for more than a year now, has brought abrupt changes in African food systems. First, there were disruptions to exports and food chains after borders were closed. African small-scale farmers have struggled, unfortunately without the tools or capacity to adapt to the new situation. Seasonal workers have also been affected, as we have seen by on the ground observation, since they became increasingly rare to find during periods of confinement. Also, it was observed that social distance measures made it even more difficult for farmers and cooperatives to connect with markets and consumers and, ultimately, these same consumers were forced to change their consumption behaviour. That said, we strongly believe that these disruptions can be mitigated by digital technologies. The application of advanced technologies has the potential to transform the agricultural sector in a profound way. To illustrate this, I wanted to mention that within OCP Group we have embraced the use of digital technologies to help local agricultural cooperatives and local farmers communicate with their suppliers on the one hand, and with their customers on the other. This is done through an application that we are rolling out in Nigeria today. Through this application, we are facilitating farmers’ access to information about inputs and their suppliers, but also to information that is related to the market by providing access to financing, insurance and to advisory services. 

BRUZZONE: Very well, thank you very much for that answer. To conclude, Mr. Jamali, I would like to come back to this inescapable subject of the Covid-19 pandemic which has very unfortunately impacted negatively a large part of the planet, but that has nevertheless, opened up some opportunities in certain economic sectors. According to you, what were the main opportunities that emerged in the African agricultural sector during this covid-19 pandemic? 

JAMALI: Today, the pandemic is prompting us to support the sustainability and growth of the sector through innovation, through digitalisation and to completely rethink food supply chains in order to ensure food security in an era of population growth that we are experiencing.  Women and young people, unfortunately, are likely to feel the impact of the pandemic on agriculture more strongly as they are the most vulnerable. By investing in the training, capacity building of women and youth in the agriculture sector, inequalities are not only amortised, but poverty is also reduced. Moreover, this created jobs, which helps improve the economies of the countries. Today, African farmers have the capacity to feed the world. Today, the continent, as everybody knows, is home to 60 to 65 percent of the world's uncultivated arable land. Africa has ten percent of the world's renewable freshwater resources. Over the last three years, it has also been recorded, that agricultural production has grown by an impressive 160 per cent. While the world's population continues to soar, we are talking about 9 to 9.5bn by 2050, the demand for agricultural food products continues to grow. If this trend continues, the amount of food grown will only feed half of this population by 2050. The rapid increase in food production will create new growth opportunities for Africa. In my view, the pandemic is an opportunity for all of us Africans, from governments to small farmers, as we have the opportunity to re-evaluate and rethink the way we operate. There are several areas of resilience that need to be addressed in order to deal with the threat of the pandemic, and of future ones. I can mention a few of them. Firstly, the challenge is to increase the agricultural population by keeping young people on the farms to boost the innovation, entrepreneurship and digitalisation effort. This also involves building the capacities of small-scale African farmers, with a particular focus on women and young people. One of the key axes for the resilience of the sector would be to promote the technical and energy autonomy of farms while adopting a rational management of inputs and water. It is also necessary to diversify the varieties grown on African farms and to develop autonomous seed production while preserving agricultural land. In addition, it is necessary to develop storage capacities and tools that allow farmers to carry out the primary processing of crops locally. Finally, one of the key elements to achieve greater resilience is to connect small farmers to all financing actors, to inclusive insurance actors, but also to markets, allowing them to understand the needs of the market, of consumers in terms of quality, of time and in terms of price. Thank you very much. 

BRUZZONE: Thank you very much for your participation. 


 

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