The involvement of the European private sector in the mechanisation of Africa’s agriculture will open up the market and help farmers make quality choices, FAO’s Josef Kienzle said in an interview with EurActiv.com.
Josef Kienzle is an agricultural engineer at the PlantProduction and Protection Division of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations in Rome.
What are the main challenges of Africa’s mechanization? Several unsuccessful efforts were made in the past, what is different now?
From the colonial times, it was part of the Ministry of Agriculture’s role to provide services to farmers. African countries continued this, although it was heavily subsided by loans from the World Bank, and the whole process was getting very expensive and inefficient. There were public servants providing services for the mechanization sector. For instance, they stopped working at 17:00 on Friday, and therefore there were no services provided on Saturday morning. These things normally do not happen in the private sector.
It became also insufficient because a lot of smallholders never saw these tractors; so tractors did not really work for all.
And by the time the World Bank decided to do structural adjustment, basically closing down all these extension programmes, the whole business started shaking and the mechanization services totally collapsed.
The donors’ side claimed that the private sector should be responsible for this process, not the public sector. The private sector in these countries or globally was not ready to get in and provide mechanization services. So there was a real gap and farmers went back to the hand-tool level. The use of tractor became quite rare and basically remained in large-scale farms and private companies. Very few stakeholders continue to work with tractors in Africa.
In addition, agriculture was not a hot topic; it had been actually a non-topic for a while, until 2006. When the oil prices sparked and at the same time we faced a food crisis with increased commodities’ prices, suddenly smallholders could not afford to buy food, riots took place in Haiti and other places, trade between countries stopped as countries halted the exports and started storing the products, and then everybody realized how sensitive the food surplus was.
This is one part of the story.
And the second part?
The second part is the ICT story. 10 or 15 years ago, Africa’s rural areas were isolated. One could not be aware of what was really happening in the capital or even in other parts of the world. Now with internet access, everyone can see what’s going on. So, a young person in rural parts of Kenya or Tanzania can visit an Internet café or use a smartphone and see what is possible in life in general. People have now started moving toward the biggest cities and Europe.
Yes, but this is a problem at the same time because urban immigration has created huge problems to agriculture’s development.
It’s a problem in a sense that cities are not prepared for all these people to come, this is correct. But, around these urban areas there is a huge market for vegetable producers, maybe processing, and storage; so the potential of mechanization around urban areas has been really growing. Through these procedures, feeding the cities will also be possible.
And from a mechanisation point of view, the old argument was that mechanization would replace the labor. That it would be the reason for immigration, so there was no support for mechanisation. However, the result is that the young generations have started migrating because of lack of mechanization. They don’t want to use hand-tool methods at work when they know that in other parts of the world this is done by machinery.
For how long can muscle power remain as the main source of Africa’s agriculture? What can we do to speed up the mechanisation process? What can the EU do?
What we need to do is to enhance the role of private sector entrepreneurship. We should focus on the next generation of potential agriculture entrepreneurs, because in my opinion, a young person in a rural area should be able to make a decision to become a mechanization service provider for a village or for a district. Obviously, young people need support programmes for that, like special credit lines from banks which will be part of a larger programme; maybe development partners could also support with technical assistance. We have to help create an environment in rural areas where entrepreneurship development is possible.
What about the agri-food industry that could actually invest in machinery as well?
It would be easier for a large-scale machinery company to invest because it is less controversial. It is a public interest to let young farmers and smallholders have access to modern technology in farming. It’s almost against the human rights to work for 12 hours under the sun with your hands in order to get the food you need. With the agri-food industry, one has to deal with chemicals and the risk of pollution, which is not the case for machinery companies as they only offer tools to reduce the use of muscle power, often women and children.
It is also a social obligation of private companies to intervene and organizations like the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the European Union should provide support.
An example is AGCO company which recently decided to go to Zambia and create a training center to educate potential entrepreneurs. What I really like about this initiative is the long-term aspect of this project. Typically, projects in Africa usually last much shorter –only about 1,2 or 3 years.
Do African governments have an appetite to mechanise the continent?
Mechanisation also has a political dimension, which is very difficult to tackle for FAO. The issue of hand-tool farming, which is 70% of Africa’s agriculture, always comes up before the elections. African government should provide the right policies, capacity building means like training centers, education to enable farmers make a decision whether they want to become machinery providers and ensure that tractor supplies and services actually reach the people who need them. FAO has tried to assist in good practices of procurement.
Do you expect an African “explosion” due to food insecurity?
We have local explosions right now, for example, in South Sudan, but it’s a local conflict.
In general, I see many positive developments. In Zambia, Kenya, Tanzania, we can see a tendency toward business-oriented farming, where young people can make a decision to become farmers. Actually, there are banks available when you get certain credit line supported by donors. I don’t see an explosion of the continent. There are certain conflict spots that are critical though.
I see young generations of Africans believing in their countries and their development. I don’t agree with the argument that everyone wants to flee Africa. That’s a perception of Europeans. It is a minority that crosses the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe.
What is your next step regarding Africa’s mechanisation?
FAO signed an official memorandum of understanding with the European Agricultural Machinery Industry Association (CEMA). They were interested in opening to the rest of the world, and the idea of this was to focus on Africa and new models for promoting agriculture mechanization businesses at all levels, from production, to harvesting, post-harvesting and the issue of market access. In the past, we focused too much on production but not so much on market access.
And how will Europeans coexist with their Chinese partners?
At the end of the day, I think the quality and durability will help a potential buyer to make a decision. I hope the market itself will be the force that promotes these characteristics.
I don’t agree with the term third world countries. All of us are affected by climate change, population growth, pollution, migration, and the internet is accessible to everyone. So there is no third world anymore. We have to treat African countries as equal players, and not as recipients of aid.