Commercialisation Is the Key
With a growing number of countries, such as Malawi, Ghana and Rwanda, beginning to ramp up investment in agriculture to expand their production levels, investors, governments and aid organisations are focusing their attention on how to kick-start the single most important process for raising productivity levels: 'mechanisation'.
In agricultural terms, this signifies the use of agricultural machinery to mechanise agricultural endeavour, thus increasing farm productivity.
There is overwhelming consensus that mechanisation still has a long way to go in Africa. That is clear from figures which point to the fact that it is still overwhelmingly human manpower which drives agricultural production in Africa. For example, in Central Africa, 80% of worked land is cultivated manually and in eastern and southern Africa, this figure is 50%. In the 1960s, Tanzania's charismatic former President, Julius Nyerere complained that while the world was using combine harvesters, his farmers were still using wooden ploughs to till the soil. It was in an effort to increase mechanisation that he instituted the Ujamaa policy of collectivisation, since individual plots were too small to allow for mechanical farming on a commercial level. The policy failed - but largely because of the severe lack of organisational capacity that became evident during the programme and the reluctance of farmers to leave their ancestral landholdings for pastures new. This failure also set back efforts elsewhere to opt for larger, more-mechanised farming despite the outstanding results from South Africa and Zimbabwe, where a small number of commercial farmers were producing more than sufficient quantities of food.
It was becoming clear that such large-scale changes in the traditional patterns of agriculture went beyond the use of better equipment and inputs - there were critical cultural, religious and social issues that also needed addressing. The failure to do so resulted in the disastrous Tand liberation' policies of Robert Mugabe in 2000.
Nevertheless, even when no such hindrances were present, efforts of various African governments and donors to accelerate the use of mechanisation inputs had, at best, had mixed results. 'The reasons for this are varied. One major contributing factor has been lack of investment. Compared with other regions, in the past African countries have not committed to serious investments in crucial agricultural infrastructure, such as irrigation.
This cannot be simply attributed to a lack of willpower or capital. Africa's agricultural landscape is normally dispersed, rendering it more difficult to coordinate large-scale farming projects than in other places, such as India, China and Brazil, which have managed the feat.
According to experts, it has largely been governments that have attempted to take on the challenge, but the outcome has traditionally been uninspiring: "In many cases where governments established tractor-hire schemes to serve small-scale farmers, planning was very short term and management was poorly trained and poorly supported;' according to UNIDO's Agricultural Mechanisation in Africa report. "Such schemes, although relatively few across the continent, failed miserably, denting the image of agricultural mechanisation in general"
The mechanisation challenge that Africa faces becomes apparent when you consider tractor uptake in the region; tractors, as an indispensable tool for tillage and transportation, are a key piece of equipment for farming mechanisation. Research indicates that other developing regions have 10 times the number of tractors per unit of agricultural land as does Africa, where the number of tractors has barely increased in the last 40 years.
Africa is estimated to be home to less than half a million tractors, but this number would have to increase to 3.5m for Africa to stand any chance of catching up with other developing regions, according to UNIDO. …