How can agriculture modernise Africa? And does the road to the cities really lead out of poverty? Reiner Klingholz from the Berlin Institute for Population and Development in conversation with Jan Rübel.
Dr. Reiner Klingholz is director and board member of the Berlin-Institute for Population and Development. Previously, he was a member of the Enquete Commission on Demographic Change in Lower Saxony and worked as a Fellow at the Stellenborsch Institute for Advanced Studies in South Africa.
Mr. Klingholz, Africa’s young people are running for the cities. Can this trend be stopped? Dr. Reiner Klingholz: No. This urbanisation is caused by new job opportunities tending to be created where a critical mass of businesses, research institutions, and sharp minds come together – at least a few hundreds of thousands of people in one place. Ideas become new products and jobs. In times gone by, one needed coal and iron ore from the ground. In this day and age, however, knowledge is the basis for jobs.
Is that also true for Germany? This trend can be observed globally. In the German federal state of Vorpommern, there are relatively few innovative businesses, and in Berlin, a new one is started every 20 hours. In Africa, urbanisation also has additional dimensions: The high population growth occurs mainly in the rural regions. This is where the number of children is higher than it is in the city. And the number of jobs can keep up much less than it could in the urban regions. So young people migrate to the city because they are hoping to find better job prospects there. Futhermore, the people enjoy more freedom in the cities than the countryside where more social repression happens.
In the rural regions, most people work in the agriculture sector. How does this affect the young generation? They see how much hard work it is. The businesses are small and self-sustained. They cultivate crop for their own consumption and barely make money from it. Due to the high population growth, the fields become smaller and smaller. Young people are no longer interested in this traditional form of agriculture and for this tedious work. It is a trap. It means poverty and is yet the cause of a continuous population growth with high birth rates – a vicious circle.
And the farmers, male and female, are becoming older? This is why the population actively working in agriculture is getting older, obviously. It is mostly women who work in the fields. The agriculture sector must change fundamentally.
Does it still need to do that or is this already happening?
Essentially, it still needs to change. After all, it is very difficult for people to escape the subsistence economy all by themselves. Modernisation and sustainable intensification are required. Productivity must increase in order to allow Africa to feed itself. Modern technology and higher chances of profit will make the sector more attractive for young people. What is important is downstream processing and that primary agricultural products become marketable food items. This is how money is made, and how new jobs are created. These young people do not merely want to stand in the field with pick and shovel...
... Otherwise they will go to the city and programme an app? Is this step not a little drastic? But this is exactly what’s already happening. It is not the perfect solution, however, given that there is not enough work in the cities. There is no doubt that people in the cities are better off than those in the countryside. Life expectancy in the cities is higher. Income levels are higher, and opportunities for education are better despite the fact that many people live in the worst slums.
Do the young people in the cities live like the British workers that Karl Marx used to describe? It is possible that this is a transition phase on the road to industrialisation. However, we do not know what consequences this would bring for Africa. Even with rapid industrialisation, it will be hard to find work for all those who are looking. Africa’s main problem is that the population fit for work is growing faster than the number of jobs available. This is the root cause of all social and political conflicts: young people who do not find a suitable place in society tend to choose radical solutions.
Why can agriculture become an engine for job creation? Why not the industrial sector or the service sector? This is because any country that has ever undergone such a development has started out in agriculture. With a growing agricultural sector, not only more people will have food, but they will also be healthier. Human capital is made through education and health. Adequate nutrition is essential for this purpose. Children with an empty stomach cannot learn. In the agriculture sector, jobs are created especially when you add the downstream sector: It goes without saying that, initially, jobs will be lost when the pick is replaced with a combine harvester. However, this also creates more and better paid jobs in processing what the farmers produce. The most large-scale structural change that Europe has ever undergone was away from agriculture and towards the industrial society. 80 percent of people used to work in agriculture. Today it is only one or two percent. Those who lost their jobs as farmers become available for more productive and innovative jobs that formed the basis of the wealth of these people. This is not only based on the agricultural sector but that’s where it first began.
Was this structural change back then in Europe larger in scale than the current one caused by digitalisation?
Without a doubt. The proportion of people affected by it was much higher.
What is the beginning of agricultural modernisation – Is it education? It is a combination of education and the use of knowledge. New techniques and tools, better quality seeds, and artificial fertilizer have all once been invented in Europe. Africa can build on this knowledge and avoid the mistakes that we made. Africa can focus on digitalisation from the very beginning: For example, the farmers can use sensors to measure humidity and nutrient levels in the fields, and they can use irrigation only when it is actually required.
What mistakes that were made in Europe can be avoided? Exposure to pesticides, overfertilising the land, and the threat to drinking water are all challenges that Africa needs to overcome. As well as the wrong type of subsidies, those that might lead to overproduction and distorted prices, should be avoided.
There are two schools of thoughts: The one preaches about the strictly necessary green revolution, and the second insists on ecological farming. Where do you stand on this issue? The truth lies somewhere between the two. Not everything falling under even the broadest definition of genetic engineering should be deemed useless because of the technology used. We have to see what advantages that can be gained from this technology. Technology alone does not make a product evil. However, it does not necessarily make a product useful. With seeds for example, revenue can be increased and other properties desired can usually be realised, using traditional methods of crop cultivation. In individual cases, hybrids can be helpful, for new pests that have come about due to climate change, for example.
Small farmers, leading an contemplative life in harmony with the environment is a naive idea
And what about fertiliser? Soil in Africa is no worse than soil in Europe, on average. However, using organic fertiliser is challenging given the degradation rate of organic fertilisers. This rate is very high due to the climate in Africa. I can barely imagine how intensifying activities in the agriculture sector can be possible without artificial fertiliser. Africa cannot do this without this type of fertiliser. Having said that, it must not be used either according to the motto of: Using a lot helps a lot. In Europe we did this for a long time, with all the damage to our soil and our water that resulted from this. What Africa needs is precision farming using any technique possible to increase revenue but without destroying the basis of agricultural work. This is called sustainable. There is no alternative to it.
Is the issue of land access a problem for young people? Land rights are a general problem in Africa. In many places, the land is owned by the state. This makes it hard to motivate farmers to make long-term investments. Alternatively, there may be big landowners who hire people but only pay them the absolute minimum. In an ideal world, every farmer should be able to farm and keep their own land. This is when farmers develop the level of responsibility required. After all, the farmer will still need his land tomorrow, and he might also want to pass it on to his children.
How can this situation be addressed? Some countries give access to land through reforms. Where the areas are too small, agriculture cannot become productive. Then you have to have co-operations in which people share machines. Nobody will buy a tractor to farm half a hectare of land. The goal should be to ultimately combine small surfaces. For example, one farmer sells his land because he is taking up a different type of employment, and his neighbour, who purchases the land, will then increase his area. The idea, partially promoted by Europe, that small farmers have a quiet and peaceful life with the people around them that needs to be preserved is naive. The only thing that will be preserved this way is the poverty trap.
How should big players be viewed in this context – as an opportunity or as a curse? It is hard for me to make this judgement. Research is not conclusive. It could be that a big investor may be able to increase productivity massively and that the country benefits from this. However, the example of Ethiopia shows that productivity can be increased even for small cultivation areas: The government employs tens of thousands of agricultural advisors, and it is offering better seeds. The negative scenario is that a large investor from outside comes, hires only a few people, and that this person will then take both the products and the revenue out of the country. Investors from outside need not be bad. After all, one problem of African agriculture is that the means for the investments needed are lacking.
Why has this potential of agriculture been missed? Agriculture has long been viewed as not sexy by development programmes. The governments wanted to build roads, bring industry to the country, establish a banking sector fast, and extract raw material from the ground. Agriculture is a lot of work initially, and the population working in this sector does not have a very high status. Young people at university level are looking to work in the administrative sector, to become doctors or engineers, but not farmers. There is an issue with the image of the sector. This is yet another reason why agriculture needs to be modernised.
Have the developed countries also missed the boat with Africa in this context? Back when development cooperation was still referred to as development, people used to say this: We will take our machines and our technology there, and everything will be okay. This approach was naive because the knowledge required was lacking. There have been a lot of severe failure. White elephants were placed in the fields. The machines would rot away while the farmers would continue their traditional type of agriculture.
If population growth does not slow down, people will remain trapped in the poverty trap.
Is there are time window for modernising agriculture, or is it never too late? Compared to other regions, Africa is just running late and trying to catch up. This makes it even more important to act fast. Countries need to develop quickly, and their people need perspectives. Without perspectives, they cannot plan their lives which makes family planning difficult as well. Along with development and better education, the number of childbirths will decrease. This is the only way to solve Africa’s biggest problem – the fast population growth. There is no humane alternative to this. When population growth does not slow down rapidly, people will remain trapped in the poverty trap. This will have horrendous, almost Malthusian, consequences: A lot of people will starve. Mortality rates will rise, and distribution conflicts will increase. Nobody wants this to happen.
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