OPINION: Sustainable prosperity is based upon sound agriculture

Thursday July 4 2019



Professor Zulfiqarali Premji

Professor Zulfiqarali Premji 

Tanzania’s goal of more industries is a good development strategy. This is if only because it’ll enable it to achieve the semi-industrialised, middle-income status envisaged in the National Development Vision-2025.

There’s indeed a lot of hype about industries, and our leaders are proactively pursuing this goal. Although I support this, I nonetheless feel that it has reached such a hysterical level that an equally pivotal sector of the economy, agriculture, is virtually marginalised.

To become a middle-income country with low poverty levels depends more on agro-economics – with industrialisation as a tool or catalyst; the actual chemical reaction is agriculture!

We largely depended on agriculture in the past, and will continue to do so well into the future. Arguably, government budgets have not been doing justice to agriculture as a sector of the economy, and there’s a need to do more.

One approach in this is to view farmers and other agro-economy stakeholders as basically entrepreneurs. Policymakers should focus on interventions that create an enabling ecosystem for farmers and related entrepreneurs to gain higher incomes and profits.

Other key areas to be focused upon by policies and regulatory frameworks range from pre-production support – such as functional inputs management – to post-harvest support in storage, handling, marketing and related logistics.

Agro-category players need to know how best to market their produce for profitable returns. Yet, farmer-to-consumer relationships are not routinely harnessed in ways that benefit the former. We must pursue interventions that enable stakeholders, including especially farmers, to get the best possible returns.

Model aggregation groups – such as cooperatives and farmer/producer organizations – should significantly help here. They leverage collective strength and bargaining power to access both financial and non-financial inputs and services, as well as appropriate technologies that reduce costs.

This enables them to better negotiate with buyers for higher returns. Ironically, such groups haven’t really helped our farmers. Why?

The Green Revolution – aka the ‘Third Agricultural Revolution:’ between 1950 and late 1960s – benefited many regions of the world, particularly East Asia and the Pacific, where cereal yields quadrupled between 1960 and 1990.

Africa missed out on this, where continued lack of progress in agricultural production is blamed for retarding the region’s overall economic growth.

So, the question arises: what should be done to boost our agricultural productivity?

Although I’m not a farmer, I nonetheless have eight modest suggestions...

1. There’s an urgent need to invest in research directed at developing high-yield seeds, plant breeding and soil types. Such research has almost 600 per cent returns.

2. Unfortunately, so little has been done in irrigation farming. With the growing effects of climate change, more irrigation farming is advisable, whose yields average 90 per cent higher than those from rain-fed agriculture.

3. As soil fertility deteriorates, fertilizer use must increase. The Agriculture ministry should ensure that affordable fertilizers are readily available. Also, fertilizer education lessens the environmental impact –and a recent study in East Africa showed that this boosted average incomes by 61 per cent.

4. Improve market access, regulations, and governance. Improving rural infrastructure is crucial to reducing post-harvest losses – especially of perishables. Also, providing incentives to farmers could raise agricultural output by nearly five per cent.

5. Information technology results in better crop, fertilizer and pesticide selection. It also improves land and water management; provides access to weather information, and connects farmers to credit sources. Giving farmers information about crop prices in different markets increases their bargaining power.

6. Adoption of genetically-modified (GM) crops remains limited in Africa. Resistance to GM crops – particularly in Europe – is a major hindrance.

High-yield, weather shocks-resistant GM crops provide an opportunity for Africa to address food insecurity. More than one hundred studies found that GM crops reduce pesticide use by 37 per cent; increase yields by 22 per cent – and farmer profits by 68 per cent.

7. Land ownership reforms are needed. Tanzania has less than 20 per cent arable but uncultivated land; yet, most farms occupy less than two hectares.

This results from poor land governance and ownership. Land reforms that clearly define property rights, ensure land tenure security, and enable land to be used as collateral are long-overdue as a strategy to empower farmers.

8. There’s a need to be sensitive and flexible to international markets. International supermarket chains have switched from cash crops to fruits, vegetables, fish and flowers, which are in huge demand nowadays.

So, we need to start exploiting such opportunities, with support and coordination from the Agriculture ministry. Unfortunately, this is still lacking.

It’s important that the ministry plays its role to the hilt in this. There’s lots of room for progress all round. Just play your part – and ‘Get it Done!’

Zulfiqarali Premji is a retired MUHAS professor. His career spans over 40 years in academia, research and public health.