Friday, February 26, 2010

Farming in Africa – the implications

I always had the greatest admiration for the people that travelled extensively throughout Africa in pursuit of their calling, whether they're surveyors, geologists, tourism operators, etc. These people have seen it all. Nick Goble provides some tips in the following article for farmers that may have the urge to take a leap of faith into the unknown and farm somewhere else on the dark continent.

For most of his 15 years with South African-based Pannar Seeds, Nick Goble has travelled Africa, establishing and maintaining markets for the company’s products. Now Pannar’s regional manager for Africa, he oversees operations in the nine African countries where the company has offices. He also liaises with Pannar agents in many other African countries, involving himself in the company’s operations from South Africa to the Sudan.

Pannar operates in about 50 countries worldwide, but Africa is probably the most challenging due to its diverse cultures, languages, politics and infrastructure, among other things,” Nick explains. “While some countries, like Zambia, have established commercial farming sectors, others, like the Democratic Republic of Congo, have many small-scale farmers.

These different farming scales need different marketing approaches and product presentation. Also, some countries are still politically unstable, and one needs to exercise caution when working in them.” Nick points out that some African countries, like Zambia, Tanzania and Mozambique, already have a number of South African farming businesses.

The need to prepare
Many African countries have excellent rainfall and arable land for agricultural production. But before a South African farmer invests there, he should have significant financial resources and a well-placed person or partner in the country who can pave the way for business. A farmer also needs to understand clearly what products he wants to produce, and whether the local infrastructure is suitable for local and/or international distribution. “This local person should understand how things work in the country,” says Nick. “It’s also better to be part of a group of other interested farmers, because it’s easier to get things rolling.
“Bear in mind that as one moves north, agriculture is linked strongly to politics. Politicians use land and agricultural issues as campaign tools, because these are often central aspects in many African cultures.”

Nick adds that Africa needs the right type of investment – long-term, where the investors aren’t out to make a quick buck by abusing African resources before pulling out again, leaving nothing constructive in their wake. “Also, remember that developing a commercial farming business from virgin land is difficult and expensive,” Nick points out.

Farming in Africa

Nick says agriculture is positioned differently in various African countries. Zimbabwe, Zambia, Kenya, Swaziland and Lesotho have a lot of small-scale commercial farmers. Since commercially available seed was introduced there, they tend to buy it in 10kg packs, each for a typical field size of just over 0,5ha. These farmers tend to buy their seed just before their rainy season. The challenge for Pannar is to make the right seed available in the right quantities and at the right time. The farmers in Tanzania, Malawi and Mozambique often come from a poor background, mostly due to fairly recent political upheavals. They tend to be on a subsistence level, and traditionally retain seed instead of buying commercially bred seed. Pannar’s challenge is to educate these subsistence farmers about the benefits of planting scientifically bred seed. This could play a critical role in pulling them out of subsistence and into commercial production.


Kenya has large-scale commercial vegetable and cut-flower operations. Nick says that massive volumes of these products are flown out of Kenya every night to be on European shop shelves the next morning. These operations are driven mainly by large Europe-based retail companies. A large proportion of Kenya is classed as highly arid, so arable farming land is relatively limited.


Many of Zimbabwe’s ex-commercial farmers moved to Zambia or Malawi on tobacco-production contracts. The Zambian government is quite open to these newcomers, but it’s a more expensive country to farm in than Zimbabwe is, as it is further away from seaports. Nick adds that, because of its similarity to South Africa’s farming and business environment, Zambia is a good option for investment by South African farmers.


The area of a country relative to its human population, and how much arable land it has, play a role in how big a farmer can grow his operation. Mozambique has an area of 801 590km2 and an estimated population of 22,89 million, and Tanzania has 945 203km2 and an estimated population of 43,74 million. But Malawi has an area of just 118 484km2 and an estimated population of 15,26 million – leaving Malawian farmers with far less room to expand. But in recent years, the Malawian government has put big money into agricultural development, and many subsistence farmers now collectively produce crops on a commercial scale. Last year, Malawi was even able to export surplus maize to beleaguered Zimbabwe. As with Zambia, it’s also exporting agricultural production to the DRC and Tanzania – a goal that Western countries support to reduce Africa’s dependence on aid.


Tanzania is quite a stable country. However, much of it is protected natural area, so there are only pockets of arable land remaining for agriculture. In southern Tanzania there’s a large South African-partnered rice and maize production operation, and South African-based sugar company Illovo has a large sugar cane growing and processing investment in the country. Nick says that the Tanzanian government is pro-agriculture, and the country does not have the business operating complexities of, for example, the DRC or Angola. Thanks to its high foreign tourist throughflow, Tanzanian people are used to foreigners. This country’s infrastructure is satisfactory, but could do with some additional upgrading. Tanzania exports its products – including coffee, cashew, cotton and tea – to neighbouring countries and Europe. Nick feels this is one of the countries that will develop quickly over the next few years.


Mozambique fluctuates between agricultural surpluses and shortages. It has enough small-scale farmers for their collective production to significantly affect its agricultural self-sufficiency. On both small and large scales, much of Mozambique’s agricultural production is carried out in its northern half. But most the population lives in the southern half, so farmers have to transport their produce at great cost, using predominantly underdeveloped rural infrastructure. Or they send some of it west into Zimbabwe. But the government invests heavily in upgrading transport infrastructure, which will open up this country’s agricultural potential – especially for tobacco production and processing in its Tete provinces.
Some large foreign companies have contributed to developing large-scale rice and vegetable production in Mozambique – for example, MocFer’s operations in the Chokwe area. The potential for producing biofuel feedstock, such as jatropha, on a large scale, is also generating major foreign and local interest. For a country that was figuratively off the map not too many years ago Mozambique is showing massive potential and progressing extremely well, says Nick. He suggests that South African farmers should gain experience of local conditions, by working with an established local farming business there before branching out on their own.


Having just come out of a war, Angola is still finding its feet politically, and can be considered generally unstable. Its main source of income is currently from its large crude oil and diamond reserves. As a result, its government and citizens didn’t place much emphasis on agriculture until recently. But following the devastation of its war, Angola is in a development phase, building transport infrastructure to link strategic ports. It’s currently very expensive to do agricultural business there, because of the lack of infrastructure and the difficulty in accessing inputs. Nick suggests that it’s better to invest extensively in Angola once the primary development phase is over and a stable phase is launched, although this will take a number of years. Ideally, Pannar would like to deploy an agronomic expert to Angola to give technical advice on its products. In the meantime, some Brazilian, Namibian and Portuguese farmers are reviving old farms, and Nick says they have a fair chance of success because of their strong historic links with Angola. There are also Israelis investing in Angola’s commercial vegetable production.

Central and south-central Africa

This region has exceptionally high-potential, but currently under-used, agricultural land. When Africa finally solves its food crisis, its going to primarily be thanks to the development of commercial agricultural production in central Africa. However, in tumultuous countries like the DRC, where there’s no respect for law and order, farmer safety is a concern. Foreign farmers who succeed there tend to have political muscle behind them that protects their interests. Nick says that there seems to be a political will in DRC to open up and expand its agricultural sector. President Joseph Kabila has a large tract of land in the south, where he has established a diversified farming business– apparently as a trial and demonstration facility to showcase the range of crops that can be farmed. Currently, much of the DRC’s agricultural production is maize, which is processed to feed the country’s many mine employees. DRC maize farmers get better prices for their product than South African maize farmers do, but it’s more expensive to grow because of the cost of transporting inputs across the continent to this landlocked country. The DRC also doesn’t produce enough maize for its own needs.


While Sudan is a naturally arid country, it has extensive irrigated land available. Sunflower, sorghum, and even dairy production is widespread, and more and more South African-based agricultural companies are marketing their products, equipment and expertise there. A lot of financial investment in Sudan is also coming from Middle Eastern countries. Sudan’s farming environment is very different from South Africa’s – it’s a hot, dry country, relying heavily on irrigation, and adheres to strict Muslim principles that foreigners must respect.

from Farmer's Weekly, 19 Feb 2010

1 Opinion(s):

variety said...

south Africa is a beautiful place in the world...