Many African nations, by necessity, import food to feed their populations, but more could be done to promote home-grown products.
“Cheap Chickens: Feeding Africa’s Poor” by G. Pascal Zachary, in World Policy Journal (Summer 2004), World Policy Institute, New School Univ., 66 Fifth Ave., 9th fl., New York, N.Y. 10011.
Why did the chicken cross the ocean? Answer: to get from Brazil to Ghana, where it sells for half the price of a local bird. Brazilian chickens aren’t the only imports that compete with Ghanaian foods—incredibly, so do Thai rice, Italian tomatoes, even Indonesian chocolate bars, though Ghana is the world’s second-largest producer of cocoa beans.
Ghana’s 20 million people, especially urbanites, eat a wider range of foods than ever before. But these food imports, while pleasing to the palates and pocketbooks of consumers, hurt the country’s food producers, notes author and journalist Zachary.
Since the 1960s, Africa’s share of world agricultural exports has shrunk from eight percent to two percent, according to the International Food Policy Research Institute. Over that same period, the sub-Saharan region—with some of the world’s poorest farmers—has switched from being a net food exporter to a net food importer. Yet foreign-aid donors and African governments are spending less on African agriculture than they did 20 years ago.
The “green revolution” didn’t transform Africa the way it did parts of Latin America in the 1950s and, later, India, China, and other Asian countries. A number of factors worked against Africa: poor soil quality, new crop varieties unsuitable to Africa’s climate, and civil wars. But even after overcoming these obstacles, productive sub-Saharan farmers are often doomed to frustration by inadequate food-processing capacity and transport infrastructure.
Pineapples and coconuts, both plentiful in Ghana, illustrate the story there. Virtually no unprocessed pineapples are exported. One domestic bottler makes pineapple juice, but only for domestic consumption, and better-off locals prefer imported pasteurized juice. The roads are so bad and gasoline so expensive that it’s hard to get the crops to Ghana’s cities. About 40 percent of the pineapple crop rots before it can be sold. Coconuts sell for a pittance in the streets of Ghana’s capital, but Ghana has no coconut juice bottler or processor, and thus no juice exports. Years of government meddling and mismanagement led Ghana to its current state.
Kenya, however, provides a hopeful model. There, fruit and vegetable growers export 30 varieties of fruit and 27 different vegetables, mainly to Europe. The real value of the country’s farm exports has quadrupled in the past 30 years. Kenya succeeds for several reasons: It has a long history of specialty agriculture, and in 1967, after the nation gained independence, Kenya’s new government had formed an agency to coordinate the industry and improve farm output and exports. But it adopted a hands-off approach to the market. Foreign investment by international companies, tourism, and increased coordination between suppliers and European supermarkets also boosted exports.
Zachary thinks there are a few things poor countries like Ghana can do. Among them: ensure that neglected farming regions get a share of new and improved roads to remedy transport problems; reform land ownership rules so that, over time, farmers gain title to land now owned by rural tribal authorities; and support effective farm-assistance organizations so that farmers who want to improve their methods have somewhere to turn.