Hans Binswanger is the former senior adviser to the World Bank on rural development in Africa. He is currently an independent agriculture and development consultant based in South Africa. The opinions expressed are his own.
The World Bank’s recent study of the prospects of commercial agriculture in Africa focused primarily on the Guinea Savannahs that cover some 600 million hectares, of which about 400 million can be used for agriculture. Less than 10 percent of this area is currently cropped, making it one of the largest underused agricultural land reserves in the world.
During the past four decades, two similar, backward, landlocked, and largely rain-fed agricultural regions developed rapidly and became international agricultural powerhouses: The Cerrado of Brazil and Northeast Thailand. The difficult agro-ecological conditions, remoteness, and poverty levels of the two regions were successfully overcome, and the same should happen in the Guinea Savannahs.
The study found that farm level production costs in Africa are competitive, with family farmers generally having lower costs than commercial farmers. African farmers are also generally competitive in domestic and regional markets, but not competitive in international markets. Logistics costs are much higher than in Brazil and Thailand on account of inadequate transport, processing and marketing infrastructure; lack of competition in vehicle import and trucking industries; cumbersome transport regulations; and the need to pay bribes at border cross¬ings and police checkpoints.
In addition to resolving these problems, awakening of this sleeping giant requires appropriate agricultural policy regimes, greater state leadership and greater development expenditures for family farmers, greater involvement of local governments, communities, and the private sector.