Sihlobo: ‘Africa to rethink agri for post-Covid recovery’

Agbiz chief economist Wandile Sihlobo calls on African governments to take a fresh and smarter look at agriculture’s role in economic recovery after Covid-19 pandemic

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Leading agricultural economist Wandile Sihlobo has urged African governments to embrace technology and public-private partnerships to ensure food sustainability on the content after Covid-19.

Sihlobo, chief economist at Agbiz, advises sub-Saharan African countries to rethink its approach to agriculture when crafting economic recovery plans.

In a recent post on Agricultural Economics Today he writes,  “A lot has been said about the need for basic infrastructures, such as roads, ports and electricity, but there are some basic things that, if executed properly, will help the recovery.”

Wandile Sihlobo, chief economist at Agbiz. Photo: Supplied.
Wandile Sihlobo, chief economist at Agbiz and author of “Finding Common Ground: Land, Equity and Agriculture.” Photo: Supplied

As agriculture is dependent on the effective and timely execution of governmental administrative and regulatory tasks, Sihlobo lists the issuing of licenses and permits, and functional regulations and enforcement as factors that need urgent attention.

This, he says, has been “constraining the growth and transformation of the agricultural sector for many years. Linked to this is a good land administration system, effective registration of title deeds in a well-functioning deeds office.”

Technology adaptation

Also high on Sihlobo’s list is the use of technology. He reckons the economic recovery road from the pandemic presents an opportunity for various governments to explore available technologies that could help in the registration of land rights.

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“This will help to solve disputes, contestation and also help with tradability of rights. This process can be piloted in agricultural land, and thereafter encourage private sector players to partner with the new landowners in further developments of the farms.

“The proper recording and confirmation of land rights will encourage individual entrepreneurs to invest in their farmland and thereby trigger the commercialisation and growth of the agricultural sector.”

Sihlobo singles out GPS systems, mapping and blockchain technology as examples to consider. This would aid efforts to change the troubling statistics which highlight the roughly 90% of rural land in Africa that is not formally documented.

Biotechnology and other approaches 

From a biotechnology perspective, South Africa is currently the only country in sub-Saharan Africa to have adopted the use of genetically engineered cotton, maize and soybean seeds, Sihlobo says.

The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) is pushing South African biotechnology research towards commercialisation. Photo: CSIR
The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) is pushing South African biotechnology research towards commercialisation. Photo: CSIR

Research indicates that this approach has guaranteed more environmentally friendly tillage practises, lower insecticide use and an increase in crop yields.

Already South Africa, according to the International Grains Council, produces about 16% of sub-Saharan Africa’s maize whilst utilising a relatively small area of an average of 2.5 million hectares since 2010.

This contrasts with countries such as Nigeria who planted 6.5 million hectares in the same production season, but only harvested 11.0 million tonnes of maize. It only contributed to 15% of the sub-Saharan region’s maize output.

South Africa began planting genetically engineered maize seeds in the 2001-2002 season. Before its introduction, average maize yields were around 2.4 tonnes per hectare, and that has now increased to an average of 5.9 tonnes per hectare as of the 2019-2020 production season.

Furthermore, other benefits include labour savings, improved weed and pest control.

Irrigation is an added factor in South Africa, but not to a large extent as only 10% of the country’s maize is irrigated, with 90% being rainfed as in the other sub-Saharan Africa countries.

Positive spin-off to curb food insecurity

Sihlobo further argues that with agriculture currently making up an estimated 23% of the sub-Saharan Africa economies, some still remain net importers of food and agricultural products.

Africa is increasingly opening the door to genetically modified crop cultivation. Photo: Genetic Literacy Project
Africa is increasingly opening the door to genetically modified crop cultivation. Photo: Genetic Literacy Project

A concerted focus on agriculture as part of an economic recovery plan for the region is therefore justified.

“This would also have positive spin-offs to curb the growing hunger in the region, specifically in countries such as Zimbabwe.

“Other countries, like Kenya and Nigeria, that are increasingly field-testing genetically engineered crops should accelerate the process, and when it meets their scientific standards, should embark on commercialisation as part of the recovery process from the economic slump caused by the pandemic.”

Each country will have to follow its own domestic regulatory processes safeguarding consumers and farmers. However, Sihlobo warns, there is no need not be too prohibitive to the extent of disadvantaging the same farmers it is intended to protect.

“There needs to be… confidence in the citizenry to manage their land parcels. This will involve the granting of tradable long-term leases in various African countries,” he says.

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