At a time when the rest of the world is re-thinking its approach to commercial agriculture, Africa has a clear opportunity to refresh its approach to the sector and become an emerging force. Big shifts are already happening in food production, land and water use, and the integration of agri-tech and product tracing. If African firms take an early lead during this transition, they will be well placed to compete globally by building enduring assets and commercial advantages beyond primary production.
The financing of new investments in agriculture has always relied on a healthy financial eco-system: active banks, sound insurers and lively futures markets. The next set of gains will come from new platforms that allow small and large firms to connect to each other and to their shared stakeholders. Reciprocal exchange of market data will make smaller, efficient players more visible to large buyers.
“Without continued advances in agricultural productivity, the whole project of African advancement is at risk,” according to Linda Manda, Sector Head, Agribusiness, Corporate and Investment Banking at Standard Bank. “The stakes are high for all of us”, says Ms Manda, “because communities in Africa rely on the agriculture industry for much more than food; employment, investment and infrastructure development are all part of the deal.” Over half (52 per cent) of all people in Sub-Saharan Africa are employed in agriculture (2019).
Three recent developments: Higher value incentives
Three recent development milestones suggest that African firms are ready to move beyond low-margin primary production while remaining active in agriculture. According to Sola David-Borha, Chief Executive of Africa regions at Standard Bank, “higher-value economic activity is even more likely if finance, technology and trade move deeper into African agriculture. Larger and more open markets, strong supplier networks and technology investments will drive Africa’s growth.”
Trade data and Standard Bank’s own long experience of trade finance, shows that Africa has been a net importer of food for almost two decades although the trade deficit has narrowed recently. Despite impressive export growth of certain key products, other food imports continue to rise. The COVID-19-induced disruption to imports are a reminder that regional resilience in food supply is a practical imperative, not an intangible aspiration.
A larger, more open, internal market in SSA
First, the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) should create a much larger internal market that gives producers access to a larger and more open market. Local production can better compete with the current import-and-distribute model. Large-scale production will arise when the returns are not stifled by trade friction. As an African bank, Standard Bank’s role is to put our strong balance sheet to work, lending to the new crop of agri-entrepreneurs.
Multinationals are already active cross-border distributors, but we expect new African producers to be attracted to the intra-African produce-to-trade and value addition opportunity. Africa also needs to be ready for the next disruption in trade. Some global imports will always be required but it would be wise to ensure that key inputs can also be sourced regionally.