Fostering Africa’s net food exporter aspiration – Anil Nair


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ANIL NAIR believes improving crop yields across the continent can offset Africa’s food trade deficit

Africa’s food trade deficit is concerning. Having lived in Nigeria for 25 years, I have seen the amazing possibilities in the agriculture value chain: the vast arable land on the continent, the people’s ingenuity, the sheer commitment to work, the desire for a better life, the growing population of active men and women, and the willing consumer base. For whatever it is worth, Africa has no reason to be a net food importer. The reality should be otherwise. 

Without mincing words, Africa can transform from a food-importing continent to a major food exporter.

Africa Has a Significant Portion of Global Arable Land

Let’s dive straight into statistics. Africa has 18% of the world’s arable land and 18% of the world’s population. Africa has a total land mass of 3 billion Ha, of which 253 million Ha are arable lands. Of these 253 million Ha, 203 million are used for crop production, and the remaining 50 Mn are available for cultivation. These are temporary fallow lands, temporary meadows, and temporary pastures.

On this 203 million Ha of cropped land, Africa grows approximately 250 million tons of cereals and coarse grains! Some of these are Maize (92 mn tons), Sorghum (29 mn tons), Millet (15 mn tons), Rice (39 mn tons), Wheat (27 mn tons), Barley (6 mn tons), and Teff (6 mn tons).

Apart from cereals, Africa grows a substantial quantity of Tubers such as Cassava (208 mn tons), Yam (86 mn tons), Potato (27 mn tons), and Sweet Potato (29 mn tons). With such big production numbers, Africa shouldn’t be a net food importer. However, the question now is, how do we position Africa as a net food exporter? 

The top-of-the-mind answers to the question would probably include expanding into the available land, improving seed varieties, and improving mechanisation rates, to mention a few. 

The Continent’s Crop Yield Level Must Improve

But let’s analyse the solutions a bit differently. I start by looking at the continent’s crop Yields. Africa’s crop yields are way lower than the world averages. The average cereal yield in Africa is just 1.6 T/Ha versus the world average of 4 T/Ha. That is a whopping 60% less than the world’s average. Specifically, Africa’s rice yield is 2.35 T/Ha, 50% of the world average. Africa consumes approximately 38 million tons of rice, and 15 million are imported. Africa cultivates approximately 16.5 million Ha of land for paddy, which gives us almost 39 million tons of paddy or 22-23 million tons of finished rice. 

Africa needs an additional 25 million tons of paddy to offset the imported 15 million tons of rice. Increasing the paddy yields by 1.5 T/Ha can solve this 25 MMT of paddy. Even after increasing the yield by 1.5 T/Ha, we will remain below the world average at 82%. To be candid, the target should be scaling the yield further. If the yields reach the world average of 4.6 T/Ha, we can export 8 million tons of rice annually.

Narrow down to Nigeria. Nigeria’s rice yields are around the same as that of Africa. The rice yield of the Olam Agri Rice Farm in Nigeria, which I used to head, is 4.6 T/Ha – a staggering yield level that surpasses the continent’s average despite using the same seeds. The farm has the potential to take these yields further up. 

Similarly, Africa’s maize Yields are just 36 % of the world average at 2.2 T/Ha versus 6.1 T/Ha. Due to the low yield, Africa imports 8 million tons of Maize. Meanwhile, an improvement of just 10% yield can offset this import quantity.

The average Cassava yield is around 8.2 T/Ha, which caters to almost 20% of the continent’s calory needs. In India, Cassava yields are as high as 36 T/Ha. Meanwhile, the highest yield level recorded in Africa is around 28 T/Ha in Zambia.

To pivot Africa as a net food exporter, it should focus on improving its crop Yields. Our current varieties have higher yield potential than what is being delivered. 

Reasons for Africa’s Low Crop Yields 

  1. Low Relative Use of Fertiliser

The lower relative yields are due to the low use of fertiliser on the continent. Nitrogen usage in Africa is only 24% of the world average (65/16 kgs/Ha). Phosphate usage is only 21% (29/6 kgs/ Ha), and Potassium is only 14%. (24.47/3.4 kgs/ Ha). NPK usage is only 22% of the world average, at 119 kgs, compared to 26 kgs per ha. This is the single largest contributing factor to low crop yields in Africa.

  1. Low Adoption of Mechanised Farming 

Another factor impeding productivity in the chain is the low adoption of mechanised farming. The average global farming mechanisation rate is 0.67 HP/Ha, while that of Africa is just 0.01 HP/Ha. The extremely low mechanisation rates lead to high harvest losses. As per FAO data, harvest and post-harvest losses contribute 30% to 50%. For example, at Olam Agri in Nigeria, we work directly with 35,000 outgrower farmers. In 2022, along with IFAD, we distributed rice paddy to small-scale harvesters. Although the farmers saw an increase in yields ranging from 35 to 46%, we noticed that the farmers were not harvesting enough yields. Some yields were lost during harvest. 

  1. Lack of Storage Facilities

Lack of storage and drying facilities leads to post-harvest losses. In some cases, losses due to a lack of drying and storage facilities can range from 50% to 100%. Cassava, for example, needs to be stored or processed within 48 hours; tomatoes are another example.

Other Factors

Other areas that need attention are agronomic training, better seeds, access to capital, and improved technologies. However, the most obvious places to focus investment to enhance the yield gap we observe in African agriculture through inputs are mechanisation, dryers, storage, and water management. 

Africa’s Increasing Population Requires Scaled Investment

Africa is growing rapidly, and competition for FX is mounting as well. Africa can feed its growing population and export food to attract FX by improving its agriculture value chain productivity. Improved crop yields, for instance, would see Africa increase its exports of cocoa, cashews, sesame, coffee, cotton, tea, and horticulture products, as well as Maze, Rice, Yam, and cassava. However, the priorities have not changed much since the 2003 Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) was agreed to in Maputo and reaffirmed in the Malabo declaration from 2014 and finalised in 2016. The declaration focused on driving investment in land and water improvement, infrastructure to help buyers gain better access to the rural communities that can benefit from the investments in land and water, connecting input providers to farmers, and ensuring a balanced investment landscape – raising FX via exportable commodities and earnings re-invested into local food security. 

A Need for Effective Regulatory Regime

Of course, all the above requires a regulatory environment with a keen eye on the quality of inputs and exports. Over the last half-decade, the government has faced impossible choices with COVID-19, the Ukraine War, Fed Policy, and increasing tensions impacting shipping routes. These have stimulated inflation and called for immediate policies to address the crises. Although resolving critical issues like the ones in the agriculture value chain requires long-term investment efforts, it is important to note that an investment in food security is an investment in curing tomorrow’s crises. 

The Conclusion

Achieving significant growth in Africa’s food production value chain will require an investment in crop yield improvement. Olam Agri, founded on the continent, precisely in Nigeria, over 34 years ago, continues to deploy its global expertise and strong investment focus to drive the needed growth in the food value chain. This is because we believe in the continent and its people. The potential of the market is also enormous. We can achieve a well-fed, high-earning, entrepreneurial Africa supported by aligned policies by working together. 

Anil Nair is the Country Head for Olam Agri’s operations in Nigeria

Toyin Afilaka
Toyin Afilaka
Toyin Afilaka writes with simplicity and insight. He aims to enrich the Nigerian small business landscape. Through Hustle24 he connects entrepreneurs with information about new policies, enterprise solutions and opportunities that will aid their 'hustle'. He has written extensively for CobraReview, a product review portal, and served as a lead project manager for MarketingMix where he consulted as PR consultant for MTN Project Fame and Business Next Titan etc.


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