African leaders recently signed and ratified the Africa Continental Free Trade Agreement (ACFTA), expected to swing into effect in the second half of 2020.
Although much fanfare accompanied the signing of the agreement, the current Covid-19 pandemic has stolen the shine on this development.
However, Africa – like the rest of the world, will go through these difficult and testing times. It is incumbent upon Africa and its people to put together cogent plans of advancing the African economy post the coronavirus pandemic.
This article contends that creating effective agricultural research and innovation systems is a vital element to ensuring meaningful participation in the ACFTA by Southern Africa and ensuring food security in the Southern Africa region, commonly known as the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC).
Africa is notorious for paying lip service to collaboration and integration amongst its countries. Several treaties, agreements and programmes have been entered into, but little implementation has taken place.
A case in point is the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) where heads of state agreed that each African country would allocate at least 10 percent of public expenditures to the agricultural sector in order to achieve at least 6 percent annual growth in agricultural gross domestic product.
The majority of African countries have ratified the CAADP agreement as per the 2003 Heads of State Declaration in the Maputo Declaration and Africa has seen an increase in the allocation of resources toward agriculture, albeit at a slow pace. Production support and capacity building of farmers have received most of the investment into the African agricultural sector but very little has been allocated to research and development.
Agriculture is vital to fostering economic growth, reducing poverty and improving food security. More than 70percent of the rural population in Southern Africa, directly and indirectly, depends on agriculture for their livelihoods. Regional economic growth has been lacklustre because of poor performance in the agricultural sector. Furthermore, there is an undeniable link between poverty and food insecurity.
For Southern Africa to better exploit the economic opportunities presented by ACFTA and the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is imperative that the region invests in agricultural R&D to come up with technologies that are geared for the 21st century and foster efficient and resilient agricultural production systems. The Southern African agriculture sector is beset by a plethora of problems that militate against business as usual in the sector. These problems, inter alia, are:
Droughts and prolonged dry spells indicating climate change: this challenge demands the adoption of climate-smart agriculture.
Floods, cyclones and wildfires;
Pests and diseases: these affect both plant and livestock production sectors.
Policies adversely affecting the sector; and
Land reform related issues, especially in the South African context.
Despite the ground swell of evidence that technological innovation has a key role to play in increasing agricultural production and strengthening food security, agricultural R&D has failed to garner sufficient attention and concomitant support to date.
The time has come for Southern African countries to wake to the reality that the allocation of adequate financial resources to agricultural R&D is imperative for the region to catch up and accelerate productivity and efficiency gains in the agricultural sector.
Sadly, agricultural R&D is virtually dead in a number of countries in the Southern Africa region. All countries in the region either have experienced a decline in public expenditure on agricultural research and development or have completed shut down their public agricultural R&D institutions and now depend on their universities and imported technologies. The irony is that, for most SADC countries, the number of agricultural scientists has increased by investment per scientist.
South Africa is an outliner in that although public expenditure on agricultural R&D has been declining, the country still invests substantially in the sector. South Africa, in terms of the net agricultural research and development throughput, is supported by private investment in agricultural R&D.
Given South Africa’s economic prowess and advancement in the region, it becomes incumbent upon the country to rise to the occasion and become the growth pole for the region. This is in support of the hub and spoke approach to regional development.
Regional trade in the SADC region is skewed toward South Africa in that all the countries in the region rely on South African imports while South Africa imports very little from these countries. In the long run this situation of “unbalanced” trade in the region is unsustainable. The economic prowess of South Africa has led to massive inflow of agriculturally skilled people from the neighbouring countries to South Africa in search of better opportunities. South Africa needs to see this as an opportunity to enhance its agricultural research and development capacity while reaching out to neighbouring states to assist in developing their agricultural sectors.
The revival of agricultural R&D in the rest of the SADC region is important if each country is to raise the living standards of its citizens by playing to its strength and fully exploiting its comparative advantage. This afore-mention scenario would then increase the capacity of the Southern Africa region to participate fully in the ACFTA with South Africa at the hub. Therefore, South Africa has both a moral duty and economic imperative to lead the development of the region.
An enhanced Southern Africa agricultural R&D would then provide the region with early warning systems on impending disasters that could affect the agricultural sector, thereby better preparing the region to act appropriately. Most of the agricultural disasters are trans-boundary thus do not respect any borders, for example, Foot and Mouth Disease, Fall Armyworm outbreak, and the Covid-19 pandemic. SADC should also enhance its regional vulnerability assessment and analysis to better target interventions aimed at improving food security. Last, but not least, regional partnerships are indispensable in the quest to revive national agricultural research centres in Southern Africa.