Business & Economy

One hand washes the other

One hand washes the other
  • PublishedOctober 13, 2014

Africa is on the brink of the transformation into an industrialised continent. This is historically logical. All regions started as agricultural economies before becoming industrialised.

Most of Asia is heavily industrialised but parts of Asia, such as Japan, are following the lead of advanced countries and are now in the post-industrialised phase. Africa, by and large, is still primarily agricultural but in about a decade’s time, there will be more Africans living in cities than in the rural areas. This has been the traditional pattern for all societies – the inevitable and unrelenting exodus of people from the countryside to the cities.

This is often achieved because machinery and fertilisers require fewer people to produce the same amount of agricultural output than before. As the urban populations grow, so does the demand for food and other agricultural commodities. Thus, the growth of cities has often seen a corresponding growth of agricultural production – even if this involves far fewer people.

In Europe and the US, the growth of big cities brought with it a corresponding expansion of farms into huge estates where the development of specialised machinery and advanced cultivation techniques disgorged a greater volume of food and related products. Food became relatively cheaper and more accessible than ever before and yet generated sufficient profits to create some of the world’s wealthiest companies.

It was this availability of good quality, universally accessible food that released national energies in the cities and created the fabulous cornucopia of industrial products that we all enjoy today. In the process, the living standards of the ordinary citizen were raised to levels undreamt of even by the most optimistic utopian.

Asia is following a similar path. The daily exodus from the Chinese countryside to the cities is mind-boggling. But the Chinese small-scale farmers are not being replaced at the optimum rate by large-scale commercial farmers. The result is a yawning food deficit, which at the moment is being plugged by heavy imports. Nevertheless, as long as industrial China can pay for imported food, all is well.

Africa is relentlessly moving into a similar position. But there are mismatches. While the urban population is growing rapidly, industrialisation is progressing painfully slowly and while the exodus from the countryside is showing no signs of slacking, agricultural output is only inching forward. The result is a $35bn annual food import bill, large-scale malnutrition and the presence of unsightly slums in the cities.

A two-fold solution
The key to changing this situation is two-fold: one, the efficient increase in output from the land and, two, the expansion of industry to provide jobs for the urban migrants. We say efficient increase because the greater volume of food produced should actually be cheaper than at present yet more profitable.

Otherwise, no one will sink investment in the enterprise. This can be done and has been done. We need to replicate it all over the continent. Second, industrial activity must expand to absorb the workforce, which in turn becomes the market for the increased industrial output. Industry is not limited to manufacture. It is any activity that can be exchanged on a commercial basis.

For this to happen, the people must be encouraged and assisted to engage in commercially viable activities. Africa must become the workshop of the world.

The materials are here; the tools can be purchased or made. Finance, the lifeblood of enterprise, must be made available at minimum risk. We must learn how others have done it and apply those methods.

But who will set the ball rolling? Can the private sector bring this revolution about on its own? Has it ever succeeded in doing so? The answer, as history shows us, is that the private sector cannot work alone – it needs the state and the state needs the private sector because the private sector is made up of the people individually or in small groups while the state is the people as a whole. So really, it is a question on one hand washing the other.

Business and government are not in conflict – they are two faces of the same coin. We need to get the two to start working together to bring about Africa’s transformation. It is time.

Written By
Anver Versi

Award-winning journalist Anver Versi is the editor of New African magazine. He was born in Kenya and is currently based in London, UK.

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