African agriculture is no longer a traditional way of life, it is a business. And like any other, it will grow, through investment and access to markets. The African farmer, like any other entrepreneur, and perhaps even more so, needs to take into account the uncertain nature of business. The farmer will be at the mercy of market flux and climate change. They will need to access finance, manage their own accounts, and diversify their assets, or perish.
The energy, the ideas and the motivation are there but not every good idea will be funded. The continent has yet to produce enough productive and profitable small businesses. According to the World Bank sub-Saharan Africa has only a quarter as many small businesses as Asia, relative to its population. Government borrowing drives up interest rates for everybody else. Interest rates to farmers in parts of East and West Africa can be as high as 20-45%. The World Bank found that only 1% of Nigerian farmers borrowed to buy fertiliser last year since small farmers find credit access difficult. But mobile technology is changing this, opening new and more advantageous lending rates to farmers. Governments and investors are also channelling huge investments into infrastructure and power, initiatives facilitated by NEPAD.
There are also many opportunities to be exploited in doing simple things for local markets. Better management skills, more judicious use of fertilisers are key skills that can be made widely available. Hybrid seeds, in particular, which are being developed in Africa for Africans, hold much promise. Governments and NGOs are rapidly teaching farmers how to plant the new seeds. One-stop-shops such as the charity One Acre Fund, in Rwanda, provide their clients with seeds, fertiliser, know-how and credit. Creating facilities to allow farmers to store crops securely and the opportunity for food processing near farms will help reduce waste as well as provide decent paying jobs.
Social networks are also primordial to the success of entrepreneurial farmers. There is a correlation between strong social networks and flourishing business. Our role models need to be flagged especially in those areas where there are few successful companies that would-be entrepreneurs can aspire to, or few successful friends in business who can be sought out for advice.
We have witnessed a different kind of farmer through the success story of Rotimi Williams, the ambitious 35 year-old Nigerian entrepreneur and rice farmer. Previously a journalist, Williams is the owner of Kereksuk Rice Farm, the second largest commercial rice farm in Nigeria by land size. Having lived and worked abroad for a while, he returned to Nigeria with no farming training but with a willingness to learn. He trained himself through every article he could find on Google and then put these skills into practice. His farm of 45,000 hectares employs today more than 600 locals, leveraging on a sense of community and remaining attuned to the cultural approach of the indigenes to farming.
Agriculture is a business and promoting smallholder agriculture does not preclude the promotion of ambitious large scale, commercial farming for Africa.