Plant this seed in your mind

Before I spew my thoughts on this page and perhaps waste a perfect evening tapping frantically on my keyboard instead of listening to the beautiful tunes of Gretchen Parlato or the surreal lyrics of Bon Iver, I would like to start by saying this –there is a point to this article. And the point is to plant a small seed, a thought in your mind. Like the small speck of sand that an ant starts with while dreaming of his anthill, this will be your first speck of sand. This is not just about agriculture. It’s about all that we consume. The shoes on our feet, the clothes we wear, the cream you have in your hand bag, the medicine we take, the chair we sit on. It’s about everything in our lives. By the end of this article I hope with everything that you touch, put on your skin, in your mouth or consume in any way your ask yourself –where does this come from and why can’t we make it on this continent. Like many of you on this forum, I am a young African and I will reluctantly call myself a dreamer. I can’t help it unfortunately. Like you, I believe our continent has lots of potential. And I am not saying this in the sorrowful “I am proud of the motherland despite its problems and we should be proud because the Egyptians were clever enough to build the pyramids and we had universities in Timbuktu a long time ago” way. I believe in our potential simply from seeing other regions do so much with so little while we do so little with so much.   It’s good to dream but our dreams should be footsteps that take us forward. Each meaningful and practical step should be towards rescuing our continent from its present state. The responsibility lies on our shoulders because we are going to be left with this rotten inheritance. If we start taking the steps now, in 50 years I will not have to waste another beautiful evening like this writing about the same things we constantly regurgitate; in 50 years, I can listen to Gretchen Parlato in peace. Let me get to my point about agriculture on the continent. In 2010, I was blessed to make two trips that planted a seed in my mind. On my second trip I had the privilege of travelling mostly by road and rail through France, Germany and the Netherlands. If you turn on to a news channel during a typical Northern Hemisphere winter, you will hear a lot about blizzards and harsh weather conditions in Europe, which should make you wonder how they can live in such conditions, let alone grow anything with such weather. Despite this, travelling through the beautiful landscapes of Europe, you see fields planted with crops and commercial agriculture thriving. Through centuries of developing technology and beating the land until it yields to their will, the Europeans have managed to grow crops in very harsh agricultural conditions. Contrast this to my first trip in 2010 which was by road between Accra and Lagos. Like in Europe, I saw breath-taking landscape, lush vegetation and impenetrable forest, but unlike in Europe, I saw no significant commercial farming between Accra and Lagos. All I saw were small cultivated patches which were mostly overrun by weeds. This is despite the fact that we are blessed with such deeply red rich soils that you can just throw seeds on the ground and most things will grow. Compare this unrealised potential to countries like Israel where they have a successful agricultural industry despite having desert-like conditions. It is estimated that 95% of agriculture on the continent is smallholder farming mostly on a subsistence basis. This is in contrast with Europe and America where almost all agriculture is on a commercial basis. Recently, I read something interesting about Winterton, a small town in the foothills of the Drakensberg Mountains in South Africa. In 1905, to initiate agricultural production in Winterton, where there was no water, the government of the time built weirs and canals to divert water from a nearby river to the town. This story is repeated in many agricultural-oriented towns in South Africa where the white Boers (farmers) built canals from far away rivers, sometimes with their hands, to bring water into their towns to initiate what is now the biggest commercial agricultural industry in Africa. Over decades, the African continent has failed to invest in primary agriculture, agricultural infrastructure, agricultural research and agricultural processing, although the continent has a comparative advantage in agriculture. This is why Ghana imports most of its rice despite the fact that Ghana can grow rice. Given poor agricultural infrastructure, Ghana cannot store most of its grains after harvesting. Bumper crops are allowed to rot either on farms or  en route to marketplaces. During the off season, Ghana has to import the same grains it produces from neighbouring countries or overseas producers because storage facilities are so poor. With a few exceptions, this picture can be repeated for most crops and in most African countries, with negative ramifications now and in our future – consequences such as famines and pressure on exchange rates and negative effects on trade balances. So let us bring it closer to home. The next time you put something in your mouth, look at the box or the can that it came from and read the labels to see where it was made and ask yourself – why can’t we make this on our continent? Also consider this – while we sleep, foreigners have noticed our comparative advantage in agriculture, and they are buying huge tracts of our arable land, cultivating this land and sending the crops to their countries where they don’t have good soils or favourable climatic conditions. If we are not careful, we will wake up one day to see all our arable land  taken and we will  moan about how we are always being exploited. But the exploitation will be our fault for not waking up earlier enough. So what am I saying? Farming is not simply the village activity that your grandfather pursued, and which you hate because on your visits to the village he forced you to dig in the heat of the African sun when all you wanted to do was exercise your thumb on your PlayStation. In most parts of the world, it is a sophisticated industry, one which we can also cultivate with all our professional skills from engineers, accountants, scientists, economists and financiers. So we all need to do something, starting with this – plant this seed in your mind.
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