Africa--different continent--same world
By Ken Root
“Eighty Percent of Farmers In Africa Are Women.” That was the opening statement from Ellen Kullman, president of DuPont, as she introduced a panel of women to discuss African agriculture at the Iowa Hunger Summit during World Food Prize week. The implication was that Africa’s hunger problem, and economic future, should be addressed by empowering women to expand their influence and improve the quality of life for themselves and their families. But like most problems we face, the solutions are part of a greater political and social struggle that is faced by all members of a society.
Another source on African agriculture was Wendy Wintersteen, Dean of Agriculture at Iowa State University. She was listening from the back of the room, and in an interview later, showed her deep interest in African farming and the role of women in their culture. “It breaks my heart to see these women do back breaking work every day to tend the crops in the fields without any movement toward mechanization,” she said as she recounted her travels to poor regions last summer and in years past. “We can provide them with germplasm and with disease resistant banana cuttings as well as better strains of poultry and goats,” but she inferred that we could not change their station in life or their role in society. That job is theirs to accomplish.
Africa is the last continent to come into focus from an agricultural perspective. The western view is that the people are tribal and the governments are corrupt. We have stayed out, except for medical and religious missionary work, because of the assumption that the land can only provide subsistence farming and, politically, they are as hopeless as Haiti. Westerners, who live and work in Africa, tell a different story. Susan Payne, chief executive officer of Emvest, an African land investment company, has spoken twice in Iowa as part of the Land Investment Expo. In her presentation, she shows how Emvest land has been converted to sizable fields and orchards in fertile and well watered regions. The yields are large and the villagers are hired to work in producing and processing a wide variety of food crops. Ninety-five percent of their production is sold within the country. She says they do not invest in countries where the government requires a “kickback” or exhibits other types of corruption. So far, Emvest is in four African countries. The local village, she says, is improved by the company, which drills water wells and builds structures while paying men and women to work on the farm.
But at the same meeting, I spoke with a man who represented a quasi-governmental agency in South Africa that was buying land from larger (his word: white) landowners and giving it to small (his word: black) farmers. The goal is admirable but the reality of governments passing out land is to solicit support from the majority, even if that reduces economic growth. We tried it with homesteading and succeeded while Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) took large farms from white farmers and failed miserably.
Redistribution of wealth doesn’t work. It is an economic reality that commercial farming enterprises grow in size and decrease in number unless outside restrictions are imposed. Having a large number of small farmers may be desirable for political leaders but it leads to an undesirable economic outcome with high rates of poverty and social unrest. Europe has tried to keep farm size small with limited success and tremendous financial investment from the combined governments. Dean Wintersteen, spoke of the lack of mechanization. It is a means to hold the status quo. Offer a farmer (man or woman) a rototiller and see what happens. In South Africa, there are larger farms that have large productivity. Their production of grains, meat, eggs and milk provide the needs of an urban and middle class. But the government disconnects the improved wealth and education of the upwardly mobile and sees a need for support from the landless and poor. Their next move is to institute taxpayer supported social programs that have limited success. (Sound familiar?)
Women in African tribal cultures are politically weak but are the base of the communities. They tend the fields, raise the children and feed their husbands. The men are protectors and their social status does not allow them to do “woman’s work”. As a result, over half of the population doesn’t work at tasks which aid the economy. Women are held in check by men’s physical dominance and tribal culture. The African women at the Hunger Summit were going against the system to show that they could raise better crops and livestock which provided the man with more food, directly correlating to less spousal abuse. Their work benefited everyone as they raised the standard of living. But, for it to happen, the culture has to be changed and future generations have to find farming an attractive occupation
Mpule Kwelagobe, a panelist, spoke of making agriculture “sexy” for youth in her country. She was Miss Universe in 1999 and has since devoted her career toward empowering women to lead in changing their villages to break the cycle of poverty. Examples were given of women who had businesses that made compost. They sold bags that could be filled with the rich soil and planted to sweet potatoes or strawberries. The women tended these near her homes and the production was enough to feed the family and sell at the market. One supplier talked to me about “micro-fertilizer” that I learned was standard N-P-K but sold in very small quantities so only one plant at a time could have the soil enriched for greater production.
All of this ties into a pending political battle in the United States over food aid to countries in need due to famine caused by weather or war. The argument from international aid organizations, like the U.S. Agency for International Development, (US-AID) is that American commodities shipped to these countries destroy the local economy. Farmers who have been able to grow a crop in the region where a famine has occurred can benefit by having a higher price for what they sell but when a large external supply is given to the government, their prices plunge and it exacerbates the economic hardship. The argument posed by American farmers, shippers and merchandizers, is that we will place the commodity in the hands of the government which can sell it at an economical price and not repay the loan to us for several years. Food for Peace has been going on since the 1960s and most of the places where we have sent food are no better off now than then. Those who benefitted most were U.S. maritime vessels, that were written into the law as the only carriers of the products, grain merchandisers, who coordinated the shipments, and U.S. farmers, who were able to “dump” the grain to reduce supply. This farm bill will tell the tale of whether our government determines to send money to buy locally or continues the policy of the past.
All the simple problems have been solved. Only the complex ones remain before us.
Editor’s note: Ken Root has been an agricultural reporter for 37 years. Root now does daily radio and television programming and is a columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.