Unlocking the potential of a massive stretch of savannah spanning 25 African nations could boost commercial farming on the continent, according to a new United Nations study.
Some 400 million hectares in the Guinea Savannah zone – stretching from Senegal to South Africa – are ripe for commodity production, but at present, only 10 per cent of that area is actually being farmed, according to the book published by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Bank.
It compares the African savannah with similar areas in north-east Thailand and the Cerrado region of Brazil, which share similar disadvantages. In the case of Thailand, there was abundant but unreliable rainfall, poor soils and a high population density, while in the Cerrado, remoteness, soils prone to acidity and low population were key problems.
In both Thailand and Brazil, governments helped spur agricultural growth “characterized by favourable macroeconomic policies, adequate infrastructure, a strong human capital base, competent government administration, and political instability,” the study noted.
Africa, it argued, is better placed to reach its targets due to its use of new technologies; economic, population and urban growth; improved business climates in many countries; and stepped up foreign and domestic investment in agriculture, among other factors.
The smallholder-led agricultural transformation which took place in Thailand, rather than the large-scale farming led by wealthy farmers in Brazil, is a much better model for Africa to follow to ensure equitable development.
“Large-scale mechanized production does not offer any obvious cost advantages, except under certain very specific circumstances and is far more likely to lead to social conflict,” said Michael Morris, the World Bank’s Lead Agricultural Economist.
Commercializing agriculture will help to dampen the environmental effects of changing how the land is used in the Guinea Savannah, the study found.
However, intensification could also lead to the destruction of vulnerable ecosystems and the overuse of fertilizers and pesticides, it warned, calling on governments to monitor environmental impacts and take action to minimize damage.