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Can UNIDO’s agribusiness dream build peace in Africa?

Lindsay Barrett suggests that UNIDO’s strategy to make effective use of Africa’s vast agricultural potential can make the UN’s development efforts in Africa more visible than interventions to halt and prevent insurgencies.


Patrick Kormawa (left), Director of the UNIDO Regional Office in Abuja; Chief Olusegun Obasanjo (centre), former president of Nigeria; and Taizo Nishikawa (right), Deputy UNIDO Director-General, at the Agribusiness for Africa book launch in Abuja, February 2012.
Photo by Tajudeen Bello/UNIDO.

The most visible presence of United Nation’s personnel in Africa is often associated with conflict. In West Africa, for example, the UN missions in Liberia, Cote d’Ívoire, and Sierra Leone are associated with the aftermath of, as well as the actual operations mounted to halt, civil wars in those badly damaged nations. It is not that the UN presence in the continent is solely concerned with the management of conflict but rather that many of the UN agencies that operate in African nations do so in quieter and less sensational ways than the military peacekeeping units. Agencies, such as UNICEF, the UNDP, the ILO, UNESCO, the FAO and others, are well-known for their work in assisting established government agencies and official institutions such as schools, hospitals, and ministries to maximize their efficiency. The truth is that the overall impact of the UN on everyday life in Africa can easily be under-estimated because many of the organization’s endeavours are often overwhelmed by bureaucratic obscurity.

UN programmes are often accused of suffering from the “aid agency syndrome” whereby a substantial proportion of the funding deployed to assist in development of the client nation’s services is consumed by the welfare and perks of expatriate personnel to the detriment of the objectives being pursued. Sometimes these programmes are rendered less effective than they should be by obstacles associated with such anomalies as a lack of an appropriate understanding of the local economic circumstances and the cultural milieu within which the agencies are operating. The effort to overcome such anomalies sometimes takes up a substantial proportion of the time and the strategic planning efforts of UN personnel on the ground in Africa. However, when this effort is accompanied by a clear and proper assessment of the motivation behind the development strategies that these agencies propose and initiate, the relevance of UN intervention in development rather than conflict resolution in Africa can be extremely valuable.

The United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) office in Nigeria has unveiled a major initiative meant to encourage the growth of agribusiness throughout Africa. This initiative bears the hallmarks of a strategy that can help to overcome the deficiencies that many of its sister agencies have been accused of fostering. The agency has published a book entitled, Agribusiness for Africa’s Prosperity, that spells out in clear terms a way forward for encouraging growth, based on the upgrading of the value of renewable agricultural resources through processing instead of through the continued dependence on the marketing and export of primary raw materials. The book, which has been edited by a team of UNIDO’s experts, but which also involved contributions from many people who work in other institutions, is a comprehensive guide to a major transformative strategy aimed at empowering Africa’s agricultural, as well as its industrial, workforce to build a new order on which economic independence can thrive.

In the foreword to this book written by Dr. Kanayo F. Nwanze, the President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the basis for the strategy is clearly articulated and cannot be better explained. He wrote that “with agriculture accounting for 65% of the continent’s employment and 75% of its domestic trade, it is likely to drive Africa’s economic growth for years to come. Small-holder farmers will be the backbone of that effort. New and evolving markets hold the promise of greater profits for smallholder farmers. Feeding the rapidly growing urban population will require more and higher quality agricultural commodities. Urban consumers will also increase demand for processed agricultural products, so adding value to farmers’ outputs will take centre-stage in years to come. This will provide lucrative opportunities not just for the women and men who grow the food, but for a wide range of rural workers, especially the emerging generation of young people. A key first step in exploiting these opportunities is recognizing smallholder farms as agribusinesses, regardless of their size or scale. Unfortunately, too many small agribusinesses in Africa are neither productive nor profitable. There are two significant reasons why they remain trapped in a cycle of subsistence. First, their yields are too low to generate marketable surpluses, because they lack access to modern technology and productive assets. Second, farmers cannot get their produce to markets, because of the lack of roads and linkages between farm-level production and downstream activities, such as processing and marketing. African agriculture and agribusiness must be transformed to meet the demands of the twenty-first century, and this book outlines the critical ingredients. UNIDO brought together some of the best minds in the field to analyse what is needed for agribusiness to serve as the path to Africa’s prosperity. Their thinking led to the findings and recommendations covered in these pages. From our vantage point at the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), we can clearly see the value in the initiatives carried out by UNIDO in this area, and we are pleased to have UNIDO as a collaborative partner.

While Dr Nwanze has adequately outlined the foundation for the strategy contained in this remarkably comprehensive book, an apocryphal story told by former Nigerian President, Olusegun Obasanjo, in his role as guest of honour at the launch hosted by UNIDO regional representative and country director, Patrick Kormawa (one of the book’s editors), in Abuja, in February 2012, was profoundly instructive. The former general, who is arguably one of Nigeria’s most devoted and best known large-scale farmers told a story about a private visit that he once made to Canada. On arrival at the airport, he identified himself as an African farmer who was paying a visit to an old friend. He was taken into a room and grilled for hours over the real reason for his visit before being allowed entry. When his friend realized what was happening he made efforts to settle the issue and then asked Obasanjo what he had said that had caused him to be delayed. Obasanjo explained that he had identified himself as a farmer. His friend recommended that next time he should identify himself as being in the agricultural business, rather than simply calling himself a farmer. This he said would ease his passage into the country.

The suggestion implicit in this story is that African farming has not attained global credibility but that if, and when, it is allied with serious business initiatives, African agriculture will be recognized as a relevant element in the global economy. It would not be too far-fetched to stretch this interpretation a bit in the context of what the UN represents in the development nexus in Africa. One wonders whether the former general, whose interaction with UN peacekeeping has been profound, right from the days of the Congo mission of the early sixties, was not also suggesting that if agribusiness was developed into a reality of the African agenda for growth, then the tendency to regard Africans going about their normal business as likely agents of instability might be reduced. In other words, the strategy proposed by UNIDO addresses the most imperative need for economic empowerment from the grassroots through to the building of a new middle class based on the effective use of Africa’s vast agricultural potential. If this strategy takes hold, there is hardly any doubt that the major consequence will be to make the UN’s development efforts in Africa more visible than the organization’s interventions to halt and prevent irrational insurgencies.

Lindsay Barrett is a Jamaican-born writer and journalist who was born into an agricultural family. His great-uncle, A.P. Hanson, founded the Jamaica Agricultural Society in the early 1930s, and his late father, Lionel Barrett, was a lifelong farmer and senior agriculturist with the Jamaican Ministry of Agriculture. Barrett has lived in West Africa for more than forty-five years, and is now a Nigerian citizen.

Video: Kandeh K. Yumkella, UNIDO Director-General, talks about Agribusiness for Africa’s Prosperity.

4 responses to “Can UNIDO’s agribusiness dream build peace in Africa?”

  1. Ekpein Appah

    This is one book that must be read/studied by all African leaders who are serious about liberating their citizens from the pains and pangs of poverty. The book recommends just little funds and more attention to the philosophy/application of the VALUE CHAIN concern of production. Nothing more, nothing less!

  2. konto

    As usual the answer is processing – that is, transforming fresh food into food that is preserved in packaging or by adding man-made preservatives – in other words, plastic wrapping and E numbers. Bad for the environment and bad for the health. And this is the UN’s great answer to the crisis of African agriculture!

    How about shifting the emphasis from international trade and the need to ship food products over huge distances with enormous carbon footprints, to developing local markets for locally-produced food that can be transported and consumed fresh? This implies a focus on improving livelihoods and incomes in developing countries and obliging consumers in developed countries to eat locally produced rather than ‘exotic’ food…

  3. Patrick Kormawa

    In response to Konto’s comment:

    Re: your suggestion for a shift from international trade to domestic trade in agribusiness. Indeed the book, ‘Agribusiness for Africa’s Prosperity’, advocated for countries to focus on first satisfying domestic demand, then the international market. However, doing this is dependent on the value chain. In the case of food products, it makes sense for countries to focus on satisfying local demand, but for value added products. Where the domestic market is small, the focus should be on external markets. In both cases, the products must comply with international quality standards, and be competitive with imported products. Food preservation, packaging and use of man-made preservatives are all part of value addition.

    It is true that transporting agricultural products over long distances has an economic cost; it can also be a carbon-intensive activity, if air-freighted. Despite these costs, there are economic benefits, depending on the value of the product. Food traders are aware of the economic cost limitations that dictate what can be viably air-freighted, and that is why they tend to only air-freight perishable products such as vegetables and horticulture products, mostly air-freighted from Africa to European markets. Looking at the volumes transported and looking at the economic benefits, the contribution to greenhouse gases is less than economic benefits generated for the exporting countries.

    Focusing investments on agribusiness will clearly improve livelihoods and incomes in developing countries. However, your suggestion about “obliging consumers in developed countries to eat locally produced rather than ‘exotic’ food…” is not feasible. Consumers decide what to purchase and eat if they are provided with choices, and thus it is not feasible to ‘oblige’.

    - Patrick Kormawa, UNIDO representative in Nigeria, and co-author of Agribusiness for Africa’s Prosperity.

  4. Konto

    What a strange comment from Patrick Kormawa. I thought UNIDO was supposed to be committed to sustainable industrial development, to green growth, to green industry, yet here the organization’s representative blithely suggests that the use of unhealthy preservatives is fine if it adds value and that greenhouse gas emissions are a price that has to be paid in the pursuit of “economic benefits”.

    So, for UNIDO is it a case of ‘We have got to have economic growth, even if it kills us!’?