OBWOGO: Join the Conversation—The Bad News is that Our Leaders' Obliviousness (Ignorance) Hurts Us All

Dr Subiri Obwogo • 19 July 2019

Last Saturday, I gave a talk on the potential of agribusiness as an engine for Africa’s economic growth, wealth and job creation to a group of young people aged 20 to 25 years who were undergoing the Lapid Leaders Africa Education Mentorship Programme. Its founder, Esther Mwaniki, is an Obama Foundation Fellowship scholar. As usual, I used some numbers to back up my argument.

One participant asked me this question, “Do policymakers have access to this information you’re sharing with us?”

This question drew my eye because I know for sure that people in government are paid to read, research and come up with the best ideas to inform policy decisions. I’ll get back to the question in a short while.

Here’s a quiz to jog your mind: Which one of the following statements is TRUE?

  1. The most arable land in the world is in Asia and Latin America.
  2. Approximately 14 percent of land in sub-Saharan Africa is under irrigation.
  3. Some 7,000 years ago, the Sahara desert was a green-belt of savannas, woodlands, lakes and rivers
  4. 10 out of 49 (20 percent) countries in sub-Saharan Africa are net importers of food.
  5. In 2016, Kenya spent Sh50 billion on food imports (FAO 2018 World Food and Agriculture Pocket Book)

Okay, the truth is that the most arable land in the world, a whopping 60 per cent to be precise, or 400 million hectares, is in Africa. Unfortunately, only six per cent of this land is under irrigation compared to 14 and 37 per cent in Latin America and Asia respectively. As such, it doesn’t take a genius to understand that investing in irrigation should be a top priority of any government’s economic development agenda.

Never mind, the Kenyan government recently signed dam deals worth Sh700 billion, although there’s little to show for it.  

Having water isn’t enough to grow a crop. You need to invest in soil fertility (testing and amendment). I shared the graph below which shows that crop yields in many parts of Africa where use of fertiliser is low are just a fifth of those in the rest of the world. There’s another way to say this, which is that average fertiliser application rate in kilograms per hectare is 17 in sub-Saharan Africa compared to global average of 135.


I then told the students that Africa’s failure to feed itself could be summed up in three words: Low yields, food loss and waste and lack of value addition. But then, to solve these challenges we need to apply the best science to problems. I used this quote from Shimon Peres, “Agriculture is 95 per cent science and 5 per cent work.” Sadly, it’s the reverse in Africa.  

So, how do you bring about social change? In most cases when we think about social change, the temptation is to confront the ugly reality of things head on. A better way would be to look at the world as a business and deploy the power of innovation and entrepreneurship. To bring this point home, I quoted American inventor and futurist, Buckminster Fuller, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the old one obsolete.”  I gave three examples.

First, is how mobile phones changed banking, how we communicate and pay bills. The second example is how Uber changed how we order and pay for taxis. Third, was how the Equity Banking Model changed banking in Kenya. As a matter of fact, tech and innovation-focused agriculture may just be the answer to Africa’s agenda for economic development and job creation.

Here’s some bad news. According to economist and Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman, “What policy-makers don’t know, or what’s worse, what they think they know that isn’t so, can definitely hurt you”. If you ask me, that’s largely a part of Africa’s growth and development dilemma.

I’m sure you know that 30 out of 49 (61 percent) countries in sub-Saharan Africa are net importers of food and Kenya is no exception. Kenya’s spending on food imports rose from Sh50 billion ($504 million) in 2005 to Sh130 billion ($1.3 billion) in 2016. This is according to data from 2018 FAO World Food and Agriculture Pocket Book.

What’s the answer to the quiz? You got it right if you ticked (c).