Making Africa Work – a book extract

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Making Africa Work is a terrific collection of essays by Brenthurst Foundation director, Greg Mills, US Africanist Jeff Herbst, former Nigerian president, Olusegun Obasanjo, and retired British army general, Dickie Davis. The authors explore the three main challenges faced by Sub-Saharan Africa in the foreseeable future. Pundits anticipate that by the year 2045, the population of Africa will double. Of the two billion inhabitants of this continent, more than half will be living in cities, and most of these will be young people who will be vitally connected by whatever the future of the mobile device turns out to be.

This extract from the book tells a fascinating story of Equalizer, a world leading agripreneurial company in the Western Cape that designs, manufactures and distributes agricultural implements globally. Enjoy the following extract that gives a flavour of this well-researched book that offers solutions.

Production, systems and technology

At the end of the 19th century, nearly half of all US workers were employed in agriculture; a  hundred years later, that fraction had fallen to below 2 per cent. The same is true for the UK, where the share of the workforce employed in fishing and farming fell from 22 per cent of the workforce in the middle of the 19th century to under one per cent in the 21st.

This was the result of mechanisation and improvements in technology.

There is no reason to believe that an African path to agricultural productivity will not bear similar results, with an overall cost to employment on the farms as outputs rise. But there will be other opportunities along the way.

Equalizer is a manufacturer of seed and agricultural planting equipment. Its founder, Gideon Schreuder, started out by making a ‘grain sieve’ for his family farm in Hopefield, on the West Coast, north of Cape Town.

‘The models on the market,’ he reflects 16 years later, ‘were not very efficient. And the screening and pre-cleaning was important, as it would get us a better price when we delivered to the co-op.’

One thing, inevitably, led to another, and by 2000 the mechanical engineering graduate was in the agricultural equipment manufacturing business.

With more than 80 production staff, Equalizer has focused its efforts on designing and manufacturing minimum- or no-till planters and seeders.

‘Developed for Africa, made for Africa, rough, tough and sturdy’ is the mantra for the design of Equalizer’s equipment, but this belies the cutting-edge sophistication of its automated machines, which are towed behind auto-steered tractors, spraying herbicide, cutting a narrowing furrow, dropping by air pressure seed and fertiliser carefully metered by depth and quantity on grids aligned to the soil conditions, before closing it all up again. The efficiency of the machinery illustrates the scale of the farming operations it is designed for. An 18-metre, 60-unit seeder machine for wheat can sow 12 hectares an hour; the 24-metre maize planter handles 14 hectares in the same time.

With Australia and Canada among its international markets, by 2016 there were more than 800 Equalizer planters and seeders in the field. The company was producing one a day, overtaking John Deere as the preferred South African supplier.

Equalizer’s success not only shows that manufacturing opportunities exist for African companies, but also signals the direction of farming: towards larger, commercial, capital-intensive operations ffering economies of scale. There is also a tendency towards better farming practices driven by improved soil and water use to raise productivity. Heinrich Schönfeldt, a wheat farmer from the Overberg area, 100 kilometres from Cape Town over the Hottentots Holland Mountains, summarises the challenge for farming in the area: ‘The bottom line is that we need to produce more of a better quality for less to compete with the rest of the world.’ Or, as Lampie Fick, a former provincial minister for agriculture, whose family has farmed in the same area for more than 200 years, puts it, ‘You can’t talk about more food on less land without changing practices.’

The world’s leading agricultural exporters are the US ($175 billion in export produce in 2015), Brazil ($90 billion), China ($70 billion), Canada ($65 billion), India ($47 billion), Indonesia ($43 billion) and Argentina ($41 billion).25 All use genetically modified organism (GMO) crops. These are seed types that were introduced commercially in the mid-1990s. All of the top three maize producers (i.e. US, China and Brazil) and soya producers (US, Brazil and Argentina) use GMOs.26 Although there is global concern about, and some opposition to, the use of such hybrid varieties, they are much more resistant than normal seeds to herbicide use, especially in the case of soya and maize, but also canola, cotton, alfalfa and sugar beet.

The introduction of GMO maize has led to a significant increase in South African production, nearly doubling average yields in just 10 years, driving up the national maize production this century by more than 40 per cent to 14 million tonnes in 2014, even though the area under cultivation fell by more than 50 per cent to under 2 million hectares. Average yields countrywide went up from 2.9 tonnes to 5.3 tonnes per hectare during this time. Similarly, soya production rose from 282 000 tonnes in 2007/08 to 1.1 million tonnes in 2014/15, the result of both a fourfold increase in areas planted and the availability of hardy soya varieties.

But not all of the progress is down to new seed types. The Western Cape farming areas of South Africa produce slightly more than half of the country’s annual output of 1.7 million tonnes of wheat, with another 500 000 tonnes that are produced in the Free State and the Northern Cape. The average yield per hectare in the Overberg area of the Southern Cape, around the town of Caledon, is 3.5 tonnes per hectare, double what it was in the mid-1980s.

A drive down the N2 from Cape Town towards Caledon offers a picture of rural bliss: carefully scalloped fields to both sides of the national highway, a quilt of green barley and wheat, and yellow canola are punctuated with neat, bright-white farmhouses.

There are no GMO wheat seed varieties available here, at least not commercially.

Wheat yields have increased by more than half in the Caledon area as a result of conservation farming methods. By avoiding continuous ploughing to remove weeds, and by leaving straw and other wastage in situ, biodiversity and carbon richness in the soils are improved, as is water retention and usage. In the Southern Cape region, where more than 90 per cent of farmers practise such conservation methods, the yield per hectare to water usage ratio has improved from between 6 and 8 kilograms of wheat per millimetre of rainfall to between 13 and 15 kilograms.

Richard Krige is an executive member of the industry body Grain SA. He farms over 2 600 hectares of wheat, oats, canola, lucerne, clover and barley, along with livestock, at Boontjieskraal, a farm south of Caledon. ‘The farming community has gone from the era of mechanisation,’ says Krige, ‘where we ploughed all the time to get rid of fungi, disease and weeds, but which depleted the grounds of organic material and structure, to a focus on the chemical make-up of the soils, particularly the extent of phosphates and nitrogen compounds. Now we are concerned with the biological soil component as the source of nutrition. This means improving the soils, but also the varieties which allow for greater use of herbicides to control weeds, the greatest competitor to the crop.’ For example, in the case of maize, using only fertiliser allows for an average yield, he says, of 3 tonnes per hectare; with only herbicides, 5 tonnes; and with both, 7 tonnes.

Despite such improvements in yield, however, South Africa has to import more than half its annual consumption of wheat. Even greater productivity is now achievable – perhaps as much as 50 per cent higher with a combination of new seed types and better farming methods. Gaining this benefit will require better cooperation between producers and consumers, as there has been in barley production, enabling co-funding of new varieties.

It also means, says Krige, having to cut ‘input costs, where we pay import parity prices on fertiliser and chemicals’.

Though it will help meet the increasing demand for food from an increasingly urban population, this surge is unlikely to be a big source of employment. Heinrich Schönfeldt farms more than 5 000 hectares with just nine people, where once 45 were employed. Across the Southern Cape, farm employment has fallen by nearly half as big machines and intensification have taken over. The number of farmers has similarly fallen, as farms have become bigger. Indeed, from wheat to maize, there has been a productivity revolution in South Africa, with less than half the number of commercial farmers in 2015 (32 000) than there were in the late 1980s, while there has been a nearly 30 per cent increase in farming output since 1994.

‘While we have seen tremendous increases and improvements from new practices,’ says Schönfeldt, ‘there is huge potential in the rest of the Africa, where we could do three crops per annum. But to do this,’ he adds, ‘we need to make agriculture a sexy investment possibility, a business, and not just a passion, driven by the realities of global markets, the latest production methods and new technology. This means ultimately getting rid of a subsistence-farming mindset.’

In contrast with past production increases in sub-Saharan Africa, which were driven by an expansion of the area farmed, an increasing share of future production growth will have to come from improved productivity.

Assuming rapid population growth, ‘complemented by rising incomes and continuation of current policies and market structures,’ the OECD warns, however, that ‘the production of food crops in many countries is projected to grow more slowly than demand’. As a result, without ‘productivity-enhancing investments’, imports of commodities into Africa can be expected to grow.

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This is an extract from Making Africa Work – a Handbook for Economic Success by Greg Mills, Olusegun Obasanjo, Jeffrey Herbst and Dickie Davis, published by Tafelberg and selling for R280.