Since the green revolution of the 1950s and 1960s, we have all believed that the development of the African continent involves improving its agricultural productivity. However, in most African countries, subsistence farming is the norm. So how can agricultural productivity be improved there?
In theory, in two ways: 1. by improving the agricultural productivity of each of those subsistence farmers, or 2. by promoting the migration of those same subsistence farmers to the city and trying to focus on more market-oriented, export-oriented agriculture, with larger scale and more investment.
We have been trying option 1, to improve the productivity of subsistence farmers, for over 50 years. International development organizations, bilateral donors, African governments have insisted and insisted again on this formula. The results are there to see: nothing, the agricultural productivity of the African continent is not moving. Billions in fertilizers and improved seeds, technical assistance, information campaigns, some infrastructure. Subsidies and outright loans that have taken up a substantial part of state budgets, that fill political speeches. Subsistence farming continues there, without managing to break the associated cycle of poverty.
What about thinking more about option 2, of promoting rural migration to the cities in a regulated manner, not sudden, and well thought through, with good public policies and coordination between central and local authorities?
It has not been easy. The process of urbanization typically goes against the interests of the political parties in power, which control voters well in rural areas and less well those in urban areas, where youth opposition usually springs up. To an alien, it might even seem that these parties in the power feed off these cycles of rural poverty…. Perhaps this is why land ownership reform is a taboo subject in many African countries, often in the hands of the state as if we were in the Soviet Union, or in other words, in the hands of local chiefs controlled by the ruling parties.
Let us, therefore, stop politicking and talk about development. For development to happen, urbanization is inescapable. The faster and better we do this, the greater the economic success of these countries we love so much. Will the parties in power lose elections? They may. But isn’t that the future of any democratic country? To urbanize well and quickly we must dedicate ourselves to designing good public policies. And there is a lot to do there: financial inclusion that allows low-cost remittances from migrants to their homes in rural areas, vocational training for migrants, subsidies to residents for the integration of migrants, and apolitical funding of local authorities. You need to read up on what has already been tried involving universities, you need to test it, you need to get it wrong in small, to get it right in big. Shall we do it?
Pedro Vicente, Director of NOVAFRICA and Professor of Economics at Nova SBE.
Article published in the latest edition of Forbes África Lusófona.
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