Beyond Africa 2015: Toward better rural development in Africa

By Musa Okwonga 05 October 2015

Gerd Müller, German federal minister for economic cooperation and development during the 15th International Economic Forum on Africa held in Berlin. Photo by: Frederic Schweizer / OECD Development Center / CC BY-NC-ND

With keynote addresses from former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Ghana’s President John Dramani Mahama, a group of delegates gathered for “Beyond Africa 2015,” the 15th International Economic Forum on Africa in Berlin, Germany, last month.

It was convened to discuss further the findings of the African Economic Outlook 2015, a publication that noted that, while Africa is a continent that has recently provided some of the most eye-catching success stories in international development, there is a more striking nuance beyond these impressive headline figures.

In a 2013 interview with the Africa Policy Journal, Ibrahim Assane Mayaki, CEO of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development Planning and Coordinating Agency, observed that “many Africans boast of having six of the fastest 10 growing economies in the world, but at the same time, what we don’t generally say is that we also have seven of the 10 most unequal economies. If we look at the Gini coefficients, Africa is the most unequal continent in the world today.”

The forum’s aim was therefore to examine ways in which Africa’s economic growth can be more inclusive. This is a particularly pressing issue given the continent’s demographic boom, with the current estimate that Africa will be home to an additional 1.2 billion people by 2050, by which time more than 47 million young people will be entering the labor market each year. One of its sessions looked at how regional development strategies could help Africa to capitalize upon this boom. The theme that emerged most consistently was that many of the answers were to be found in rural areas.

Indeed, as noted in the publication, “the majority of Africa’s population is likely to remain rural until the mid-2030s … Continued demographic growth in the rural areas means that productive opportunities must be created everywhere: policies focusing mainly on moving the rural labor force to productive activities in the cities may not be enough.”

But where will these opportunities be created? Speaking with Devex, Mayaki was emphatic. “The main sector that you can tap to create jobs is agriculture,” he said, using Mali as an example. “But not agriculture with [the] yields that we have today. It has to be through a transformation of small-scale farmers, into micro- and meso-entrepreneurs.”

That cannot happen if you don’t have a rural development transformation strategy, he said, adding that if such a strategy was not drawn up, then there was a particular risk for disaffected young men. “We will not be able to employ them,” said Mayaki, “and they will go and join Boko Haram, and gain $5 or $6 a day.”

The main challenge, he said, was not to conceive of agriculture merely in sectoral terms. “We know very well that you cannot increase agricultural productivity without energy. So you need to decentralize energy access in rural areas … you need innovation in terms of how you can use bioenergy at [the] local level. But innovation is not a characteristic that governments have had up ‘til now.”  

As part of its emphasis on this multisectoral approach to agriculture, NEPAD — through its Comprehensive Africa Agricultural Development Program — has urged African governments to invest 10 percent of public resources in agriculture. So far, said Mayaki, CAADP had enjoyed some success, with 14 of the 54 states in the African Union either close to or beyond this target.

Though Mayaki believed some progress had been made, he felt that there was still a need to rethink the role of the state, and to devolve more administrative powers to the local level. In his view, the countries which were best addressing this issue at present were Ethiopia and Rwanda. “At the end of the day, agriculture is local,” he said. It is not the affair of an agriculture ministry. It’s the affair of local institutions, managing these issues in interaction with small-scale farmers.”

Ivory Coast is another nation making similar efforts in this regard, as Kassi Jean-Claude Brou, the country’s minister for industry, told Devex.

Brou pointed out that his country’s investment code had very specific tax advantages for private sector investment in rural areas. “When you invest in the capital city, you get five years’ exemption from income tax. When you invest in rural areas, you can get up to eight [year’s exemption], and in very, very remote areas you can get up to 15 years.” Like Mayaki, Brou spoke of the need to empower local institutions, noting that his government had doubled its funding “so they can leverage private sector resources, to really develop the region.”  

While Brou was confident that the Sustainable Development Goals would provide a useful framework for Africa’s progress, he sounded a note of caution about the nature of growth that the continent was achieving. “We’ve had strong growth in the last 10 years,” he said, “but we need to transform our products. If you look at this growth, it is essentially primary product-oriented; mining products, and so on. So we need to [make] more value-added products; and we need to be more aware of human development, because this is also critical for sustainability.”

The overall sense from the Africa Forum, then, was that a careful blend of approaches was necessary for the long-term success of rural development. While it was important to galvanize growth through incentives for private companies and local entrepreneurs, it was also vital to remember that the solution lay in greater devolution of powers to local institutions. Then, it was contended, and only then, would the continent see the kind of development that it needs.

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About the author

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Musa Okwonga

Musa Okwonga is a journalist, poet, broadcaster, musician, and PR consultant currently based in Berlin, Germany. He has written for several publications, including The Guardian, The New Statesman, ESPN and The New York Times, and is the author of two books on football, the first of which, A Cultured Left Foot, was nominated for the 2008 William Hill Sports Book of the Year. Find out more about his work at www.okwonga.com.


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