Can Africa one day help feed the world’s growing population?

An hour away from the medina of Marrakech and its throngs of tourists, plains of semi-desert stretch across the horizon. Here, at the Benguerir mine, huge diggers bore into the ochre earth to reach the phosphate rock beneath, a resource that could help shape Africa’s future.

OCP, a state-owned Moroccan company, digs 44mn tonnes of phosphate rock out of Benguerir and three other mines each year for processing into fertiliser. By 2027, that will reach 70mn tonnes. While most of its output is currently shipped outside the continent, it is on Africa that the company is pinning its future.

The company is pouring cash into developing the continent’s agrifood sector, investment that it hopes will result in a big increase in demand for fertiliser. It is a massive gamble given that Africa had to import $43bn of food in 2019, according to World Bank estimates. That figure is set to rise to $110bn by 2025, it predicts.

 A Kenya Airways employee controls an unmanned aerial vehicle as it spreads fertiliser over a tea farm at Kipkebe Tea Estate in Kenya in 2022
Unmanned aerial vehicles spread fertiliser at Kipkebe Tea Estate in Kenya in 2022. Since the 1960s, new seed varieties and improved access to fertilisers have helped transform agricultural production across the world © Patrick Meinhardt/AFP/Getty Images

The continent’s agriculture is generally inefficient; average yields from cereals are half those of India and a fifth of those of the US. Political insecurity, poor infrastructure and conflict scare off investors and the challenges of climate change are particularly acute.

But OCP is not alone in reckoning that Africa can produce enough food to sustain itself and perhaps even supply other parts of the world. The UN forecasts a global population of 10bn people by 2050 will require 60 per cent more calories. 

“Africa can be a net food exporter,” Bill Gates tells the Financial Times. “Even in the face of climate change.” The Microsoft co-founder, whose charitable foundation is investing across the continent, says better seeds and better livestock genetics could have a big impact. “That plus fertiliser — that’s the green revolution.” 

Since the 1960s, new seed varieties and improved access to fertilisers have helped transform agricultural production across many parts of the world. In Asia, for example, rice yields doubled between 1965 and 1995.

Line chart of Primary cereal yields, kg per hectare showing Yields in Africa are below those in other regions

Africa was left almost untouched by this agricultural revolution, held back in part by too few people to farm its abundant land. Today, the continent has 60 per cent of the world’s available arable land and a growing young population to work it.

For OCP, a company whose strategy often overlaps with Morocco’s diplomatic agenda in Africa, the rewards could be huge. The continent uses 24kg of fertiliser per hectare of land on average, according to the FAO, a fifth of the global average. “To put it simply, yields are maybe a quarter of their potential today, across the board in Africa,” says Illias El Fali, OCP’s managing director for corporate strategy, performance management and operations co-ordination. “If we manage to bring them closer to their potential, we can create a lot of value.”

To raise those yields, he estimates that Africa will need to consume 10 times as much fertiliser. If it can do so, El Fali and OCP believe Africa can “really become the breadbasket of the world, not only to ensure its own food security, but also to contribute to relieving the global food security challenge.”

It is an enormous task, says David Laborde, director of agrifood economics at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). “For the future of the world, we need to see a transformation in Africa like we have seen in Latin America,” he adds.

He predicts it will be a slow process. “Investing in Africa today is both more risky politically and in terms of the climate.”

Many efforts to transform African farming start with seeds.

The continent’s farmers are mostly subsistence or small-scale producers, toiling on rain-fed soils that are often heavily degraded. Few buy commercial seeds; instead, they use open-pollinated seeds from the previous year’s crop, reducing that year’s production and undermining food security.

In Europe, Asia and the Americas over the past five or six decades, the private sector has used seed engineering to transform crops like wheat, corn and soy as well as improving the genetics of livestock and poultry in order to maximise calories and profits. 

Governments, NGOs and the private sector are trying to do the same for Africa. In 2021, Olam Agri, a commodity trader with a large footprint on the continent, launched a trial programme in Nigeria to improve wheat production.

Men grind dried cassava tubers into flour at their shop in Bodija market, Ibadan, Nigeria, in 2022
Dried cassava tubers are ground into flour at Bodija market in Ibadan, Nigeria. The root vegetable is a staple food for some 70mn Africans, yet average yields in Nigeria are just six tonnes per hectare © Temilade Adelaja/Reuters

The Gates Foundation, in partnership with CGIAR, a global research alliance that promotes food security, is also putting money into developing higher yielding seed varieties that are more resistant to the effects of climate change and disease. Until recently, the CGIAR’s work focused on globally-traded crops like wheat, rice and maize, but it is turning its attention to African staples such as cassava, millet, sweet potato and teff, a grass whose seeds are consumed across east Africa.

Last year, the US state department, African Union and the FAO launched the Vision for Adapted Crops and Soils to direct investment into developing Africa’s traditional crops.

Cassava, a root vegetable, is a staple food for some 70mn Africans, yet average yields in Nigeria are just six tonnes per hectare. The International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, a research centre in the CGIAR network, has developed new varieties that can produce five times that amount. 

Getting these seeds from laboratories and into the hands of farmers is another challenge. In many African countries, the process is handled by state monopolies and burdened with bureaucracy. But Gates says countries such as Ethiopia and Kenya have made headway.

“‘That’s capitalism’,” he recalls Ethiopia’s former prime minister, Meles Zenawi, saying after Gates had urged him to allow commercial seed dealers into the socialist-run country more than a decade ago. But slowly, Ethiopia developed a hybrid system and created the Agricultural Transformation Agency, which has focused on developing new varieties of wheat and teff.

The efforts of the ATA and the commercial seed distributors, with which it partners, are paying off. This season, Ethiopia will produce a quarter more wheat than last year, creating a surplus for the first time.

The priority after seeds is fertiliser, according to Gates. But here, Africa will have to adopt a different approach.

While African farmers use too little fertiliser, leaving soils devoid of nutrients, most of their counterparts elsewhere use too much. Nitrogen-based fertilisers support half of the world’s food supply yet, along with farm manure, they make up 5 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions — more than aviation and shipping combined, according to research published by the journal Nature Food. In total, farming and forestry account for almost a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions.

“The green revolutions of the past century were based on intensive use of [fertiliser and pesticides] and deforestation,” says OCP’s El Fali. “We absolutely need to increase productivity in agriculture . . . but if we do the same thing we’ve been doing so far this will have a huge impact on the environment.”

Workers run a fertiliser packaging unit at the Fertiplant granulation factory in Nakuru, Kenya
A fertiliser packaging unit at the Fertiplant granulation factory in Nakuru, Kenya. Nitrogen-based fertilisers support half of the world’s food supply yet, along with farm manure, they make up 5 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions © James Wakibia/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

The solution may lie in customisation. In the back of a trailer, white-coated scientists show off their most recent collections of soil samples and the high-tech equipment used to test them. Like the health clinics that have brought medical care to parts of Africa, OCP’s mobile soil laboratory roams around Morocco offering farmers a health-check for their soil, measuring its deficiencies in the three key macronutrients — nitrogen, phosphate and potassium — and less vital compounds.

Farmers who get their soil tested can take their “prescription” to a blender in nearby El Attaouia, which then spurts out a bespoke fertiliser mix. As well as avoiding unnecessary fertiliser use, thereby cutting emissions, protecting soils and boosting yields, this often works out cheaper for the farmer. 

OCP’s plan is to take this service all over Africa. It will have eight blending units, including in Ghana and Ivory Coast, by the end of this year, says Habiba Mouttaki, chief commercial officer at OCP Africa, set up in 2016 to focus on the region.

It is already active in Ethiopia and Nigeria, Africa’s two most populous countries and potential agriculture hubs. In Nigeria, OCP’s programme has led to a tripling of fertiliser use and a 27 per cent rise in yields since 2016. In Ethiopia, yields have risen 37 per cent while spending on fertiliser is down by a fifth.

Bar chart of kilogrammes of nutrient per hectare showing fertiliser use in African countries is very limited

Having started at 20kg of fertiliser per hectare on average, Ethiopia is now one of the few African countries to achieve the Abuja target — a goal set by members of the African Union in Nigeria’s capital in 2006 — of 50kg per hectare.

An even bigger soil project is under way a few kilometres from the Ben Guerir mine at the Mohammed VI Polytechnic University, an institute set up by OCP. “The idea here is to map all the soils in Africa,” says Hicham El Habti, the university’s president. It has already mapped Morocco’s soils and is now working on 13 other African countries, including Ghana, Ivory Coast, Rwanda, Senegal and Tanzania, El Habti adds. 

Once you have mapped the soils, applied the nutrients and sown the right seeds, the next step is “the value chain”, says El Habti.

Increasing productivity will lead farmers away from growing food mostly for their own consumption and towards trading and processing it. That brings fresh challenges.

“You need to make sure that there is a market for whatever you grow,” says Laborde of the FAO. “In agricultural commodities, often if you double production, you divide the price by three,” he warns, citing the example of seeds for higher-yielding potatoes distributed to African farmers around a decade ago. Farmers had nowhere to sell the glut of potatoes that ensued; prices fell and produce rotted in the fields.

Africa has been a big crop exporter before; in the 1960s, as European colonial powers gradually withdrew, the continent churned out much of the world’s cocoa, coffee and palm oil.

Ghana and Ivory Coast still dominate global cocoa production, but it has not made their economies rich. Prior to a recent surge in cocoa prices, for decades the raw commodity was exported for dismally low prices. The real money is made further down the chain. The Fairtrade Foundation, an NGO, estimates that cocoa farmers receive around 6 per cent of the final value of a chocolate bar. 

El Habti adds that the university is researching how to develop Africa’s agricultural value chains to avoid recreating or perpetuating the extractive colonial model. It is no easy task. “A huge amount of the harvest is lost,” he says, often for want of storage facilities.

Gates has faith that the private sector will eventually develop Africa’s agrifood system. “In agriculture, as you get people past subsistence, where they’re selling their eggs and they’re selling their output, then it’s a self reinforcing thing,” he says.

For many African countries, however, the list of obstacles is intimidatingly long. “South Sudan has the potential to be the breadbasket of east Africa,” said Qu Dongyu, the head of the FAO, during a visit to the country last year. “But the climate crisis, poor agriculture infrastructure, instability and economic shocks continue to disrupt agricultural and livestock productivity and food availability.” 

Alvaro Lario, president of the UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development, similarly stresses that while South Sudan is almost 90 per cent arable land, “they don’t have the right land governance . . . the right access to finance.”

The country is one of a growing number affected by political instability and conflict. Outside South Africa and Zambia, around 80 per cent of sub-Saharan Africa “has no formal title deeds or land tenure,” says Wandile Sihlobo, chief economist at South Africa’s Agricultural Business Chamber. 

In many places, land still belongs to chieftaincies, whom farmers pay as much as 30 per cent of the crop as rent, according to Neelamani Muthukumar, chief executive of operations at Olam Agri. “The farmer without land as an asset is not bankable and hence has no access to financing.”

This deters businesses and farmers from making the investments in farming infrastructure “that [are] needed to boost productivity,” adds Sihlobo. As a result, most farmland is still rainwater-fed rather than using more dependable irrigation systems, for example, while Africa’s lack of roads and railway lines makes it hard for farmers to access even nearby markets and scares off private sector investment.

Lario says governments must step in where the private sector has remained absent. But for the most part this has not happened, leaving Africa’s agricultural systems underfunded and particularly vulnerable to climate change.

A study by Washington-based think-tank the Center for Global Development recently found that climate change will quash revenue from crops in Africa by as much as 30 per cent, cutting average gross domestic product per capita by more than 7 per cent and driving 200mn more Africans into hunger. 

“There are lots of factors that go into productivity in African agriculture besides climate change, but it’s certainly at least going to make it harder,” says Charles Kenny, senior fellow at the centre.

Mohamad Chatoui, an olive farmer from El Kelaa des Sraghna in central Morocco, is undeterred. Standing among his trees, he recounts how he used to go to the market and buy whatever fertiliser was available. His eight hectares produced only around four tonnes of olives each year.

But five years ago he began using a fertiliser customised for his soils, while the government has funded a new irrigation system. Even as Morocco has faced consecutive years of drought, his soaring yields have allowed him to capitalise on a surge in olive oil prices on global markets.

Cases like Chatoui’s show what is possible, according to OCP. “We are launching pilots in many places to show people that change like this can happen,” says Mouttaki. “The idea is not do it alone,” she adds, instead it is “to invest to unleash the demand.”

“We are investing in Africa without having really a year-over-year return on investments,” says Mouttaki. “For us, it’s the long game.”

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