Fruitful agricultural transformations

Across the globe, agriculture is acknowledged as a seismic transformative force that is capable of wonders. Countries that stood at the precipice of hunger and economic implosion only a decade ago now boast resilient economies today, owing to the power of agriculture.

Indeed, the most effective way to improve the lives of millions and consequently apply the brakes on hunger is to support agriculture unreservedly. It is common knowledge that most of the world’s poor are farmers, and those who are not spending much of their income on food. Transforming a country’s agriculture sector can create jobs, raise incomes, reduce malnutrition, and kick-start the economy on a path to middle-income growth.

In fact, almost every industrialised nation began their economic ascent with an agricultural transformation. Recent examples include Brazil, China, and Vietnam – each of which at least doubled the value of its agriculture sector within 20 years of starting its transformation. Many other countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America are already on the path of transformation.

According to a piece by Sara Boettiger, et al: “Navigating the complexity of agricultural transformation is invariably tough for governments, even though they may prioritise agricultural investment and recognise how important it is to get right. This is especially true in an era when governments are seeking agricultural transformations that meet multiple goals simultaneously. In addition to traditional economic development and poverty reduction goals, governments are also focusing their agricultural transformation plans on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by considering, for example, climate-smart strategies, women’s economic empowerment, and biodiversity.

“The drivers of agricultural transformation are multidimensional, interrelated, and change over time; but they can be organised into categories to provide a better opportunity for pragmatic diagnostics and decision-making on national priorities. After running more than 30 country diagnostics, we found that the drivers fall into three main categories:

“First, there are elements of ‘transformation readiness’. Changes to a country’s institutional framework, governing mechanisms, and political environment can significantly influence the likelihood of accelerating an agricultural transformation. Second, quality of the national agricultural plan or strategy is critical. Last, there are drivers related to delivery mechanisms. This category focuses on what is needed to translate the national agricultural plan into on-the-ground impact. This includes the ways in which countries manage decision-making and progress against targets, as well as how they use change-agents to support the large-scale behaviour change among smallholder farmers that underpins a successful agricultural transformation.”

The paper analyses the intricacies of a good national plan that is capable of inciting the rapid economic transformation desired by developing countries like Ghana. The piece further notes that developing an agricultural transformation plan demands prioritisation to succeed. “Successful plans identify goals in a limited number of crop and livestock value chains, cross-cutting agriculture sector enablers (such as lower transportation costs or access to irrigation), and specific geographies.

“Ethiopia and Morocco are experiencing transformations that show clear focus in terms of crops, transformation enablers, and geographies. Morocco’s Plan Vert started with seven value chains, expanded to nine, and focused on six geographic areas. Ethiopia’s agricultural transformation plan initially prioritised three value chains and five geographic areas. Countries often prioritise a combination of both food security crops as well as export or higher-value commodities.

“Rwanda’s Crop Intensification Programme, launched in 2007, for instance balanced land use between intercropping of diverse crops and mono-cropping a set of six priority crops. The country’s 2013 agricultural transformation plan included specified priority agricultural value chains in both food and export commodities (including apiculture, dairy, fisheries, and meat). Our experience suggests that many countries’ agricultural transformation plans are overly-ambitious, cover too many value chains, and fail to focus critical resources. Eight of the 13 national agricultural plans that we analysed in Africa didn’t set clear priorities.

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“A second related success factor is differentiation. Successful agricultural transformation plans differentially target agri-food systems and geographic areas with tailored strategies. For example, more productive land that is already well connected to markets, such as irrigated land in Morocco, can support large- or small-scale farms; agribusiness is easier to scale there. In more remote areas, though – with bad roads, poor-quality land, and less well-connected markets – different strategies are needed. These might involve greater focus on staple crop productivity and social safety nets. Most plans don’t make these distinctions.

“A third related success factor lies in weighing the trade-offs among multiple objectives. Governments work toward a number of different goals, including growth in agro-processing, reduced unemployment, lower poverty incidence, food self-sufficiency, economic growth, increased exports, or lower rates of malnutrition. If these trade-offs are explicitly considered and communicated when developing the agricultural transformation plan, it is possible to tailor the choice of value chains, cross-cutting enablers, and geographies to differentially achieve the government’s chosen goals.

“For example, one strategy might focus on raising the productivity of smallholder farmers’ food crops in a particular region where rural poverty and stunting (from malnutrition) rates are high, while a concurrent strategy focuses on what is needed to accelerate growth in the coffee sector to boost export revenue and job creation. When the trade-offs among multiple objectives are not explicitly integrated into the agricultural transformation plan, progress is characterised by under-delivery across too many, sometimes competing, objectives.”

One of the most remarkable examples of agricultural transformation, Brazil, has a fabled story that is worth emulating.

The South American country’s transition from a country with an underdeveloped agricultural sector setting to one of the words bread-baskets is an incredible feat that demonstrates the magnitude of impact a country can make through a deliberate effort to reform agriculture.

While a national approach to agricultural excellence was key to changing the country’s narrative, Brazil’s success is mostly attributable to the significant improvement in productivity made possible through the development of farming inputs relevant to the country’s unique ecosystem.

Though the country’s arable landmass has remained unchanged since the mid-1970s, production is estimated to have soared by as much as 300% – a rate believed to be faster than that recorded by other agriculturally successful nations like the Unite States and China.

Like the impressive examples of the Netherlands and Israel, Brazil owes its enviable strides in agriculture to strong government investment in research and development.

Some forty-five (45) years ago, Brazil’s ruling generals established the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation, which would later become the world’s leading tropical research institution.

The creation of this institution proved pivotal to the growth of agriculture in the South- American nation, as it led the way in developing new varieties of soya beans which experts later rated as being better and most suitable to the country’s climate.

This soybean variety introduced by the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation proved to have shorter growing periods, and consequently presented farmers the opportunity of growing two crops each year.

From what was very little beginnings of experimenting with new soya bean varieties which were scientifically engineered to improve harvest, Brazil today holds the enviable record of being the world largest exporter of soya beans.

Apart from its hugely successful experiment with improved soya bean varieties, Brazil also has very conducive financial service delivery on which the country’s agricultural sector thrives. Recently, the international Food Policy Research Institute has lauded the country for its remarkably strong agricultural sector financial management systems.

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Brazil has a banking system that perhaps has more interest in providing tailor-made services for agricultural supply chain actors than it does other sectors of the country’s vast economy. Brazilian banks are known to give long-term investment finance, as well as specialised financial advisory services, to farmers at reasonably fair rates.

Interestingly, Brazil is one of very few countries on the planet where legislation permits agri-preneurs to trade ‘farm product bonds’ on yet-to-be-harvested farm crops. This brilliant innovation by the Brazilians has created a perfect agricultural sector atmosphere for value chain actors to thrive.

Lessons for Ghana

As Ghana looks to propel her agriculture sector to great heights, the example of how Brazil, China and other countries transformed agriculture in their respective countries is worthy of emulation.

From a Ghanaian perspective, what makes the Brazilian story interesting is that only a few decades ago the South American country had an agriculture sector that was literally on life-support.

Necessity is the mother of invention – and invention the precursor to great things. It is therefore unsurprising that the efforts of Brazil yielded fruit that has today placed the country’s burgeoning agricultural sector in the global limelight for excellence.

Similar to the initial stages of Brazilian agriculture, Ghana has an agricultural sector that is not reflective of the country’s vast potential. The good news, notwithstanding, is that stakeholders are increasingly becoming adventurous and innovative – soothing signs which point to the possibility that we could indeed emulate the likes of Brazil.

The Brazilian financial sector’s commitment to helping small- and medium-scale farmers grow their enterprises, coupled with the legislative backing provided for value chain actors willing to invest their farm produce in financial bonds, is a model that Ghana could experiment with.  The farmer is central to success of agriculture, and so every effort aimed at making work and life worthwhile for the farmer is too critical to be handled with levity.

Additionally, Ghana can ill-afford to sidestep the lessons deducible from the start-point of the brilliant success story of Brazil’s agriculture. This was the moment the country decided to create the now hugely successful Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation, which led the way in creating and implementing an ambitious national agricultural development blueprint responsible for the accelerated growth of one of the world’s biggest agricultural nations.

If the story of Brazil’s breakthrough proves a catalyst for Ghana’s agricultural sector transformation efforts, a combination of the much-heralded ‘One Village, One Dam’ and ‘Planting for Food and Jobs’ policies of government could easily be the launch-pad that propels our agriculture to the lofty heights it is capable of.

To turn potential into reality, however, we must make a concerted effort that is sustainable enough to set our agricultural sector on a path to accelerated growth and eventual development.

Ghana’s Planting for Food and Jobs and its allied modules like Rearing for Food and Jobs provide Ghana with an interesting blueprint on which to raise the building blocks of a big, resilient and profitable agricultural sector for the benefit of all. The onus is therefore on stakeholders to work assiduously on safeguarding the gains made so far.  The malignant issue of fertiliser smuggling and diversions must be tackled head-on to avert a disruption of progress in the advancement of agriculture. In a similar vein, genuine effort must be made to stem any threats that could constitute clogs in the agriculture sector’s wheel of progress.

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