November 25, 2017

The Rape of Africa

Review of Agribusiness In Africa: A study of the impact of big business on Africa’s food and agricultural production, Barbara Dinham and Colin Hines, Earth Resources Research Publications, 1983


This is a very useful report done by a research group that has already done valuable work. Readers of The Ecologist will remember, for instance, Automatic Unemployment, its excellent report on the impact of microelectronics on UK employment, which was written by Graham Searle in conjunction with Colin Hines, one of the authors of this new report.

Agribusiness in Africa is neatly produced as a high-quality paperback. It contains 224 pages, and is divided up into six chapters together with an introduction, a conclusion and a number of interesting appendices.

The first chapter is on the general state of agribusiness in Africa. The second and third chapters are respectively on the international coffee and sugar trades and their impact on Africa. The fourth deals specifically with the situation in Kenya, the fifth with that in Tanzania and the sixth examines the role that agribusiness plays in Africa’s food crisis.

The first thing one learns on reading this report is the tremendous importance of agriculture to the economy of most African countries. This is dealt with in the introduction and in greater detail in Appendix A. The agricultural exports as a percentage of export earnings is low in the case of oil producing countries, such as the Gabon and Nigeria, and uranium exporting countries like Namibia, but it is very high in most of the other states: 72 per cent in the case of Benin, 80 per cent in the case of Chad and Mozambique, 82 per cent in the case of Rwanda, 85 per cent in the case of Somalia, 86 per cent in the case of Madagascar, 90 per cent in the case of Ethiopia, Uganda, the Sudan and Gambia, 94 per cent in the case of Burundi and 95 per cent in the case of Malawi and Mauritius.

This in itself explains why peasant agriculture is everywhere being superseded by plantation crops for export. Only in this way do African countries have access to the foreign currency they require for paying the interest on their debts and for buying oil and the other commodities required for the economic development to which they are all committed.

The authors briefly describe the advantages of traditional agriculture in Africa. “Food security and self-sufficiency were common”, they write.

“For example, in Upper Volta the population always had three harvests in reserve as an insurance against drought and it was socially unacceptable to eat grain that had spent less than three years in the granary.”

Agricultural practices were highly sophisticated and included,

“irrigation, terracing, crop rotation, green manuring, mixed and swamp farming. Cultivation was based on an experienced evaluation of soil potential, essential on a continent where the soils are very delicate and easily destroyed by intensive farming.”

Agricultural surpluses were common though, sufficient in the case of the Niger Delta to support groups “of wood-carvers, smiths, salt-makers, potters, traders, diviners and doctors and many other activities.”

However, the agricultural practices of traditional peoples in Africa were disrupted, as were all other aspects of their lives, by the arrival of the Europeans. First there were the slave traders who devastated vast areas for 300 years; then the traders who flooded the market with cheap manufactured goods thus destroying local crafts; then the settlers (particularly in East, Central and South Africa) who took over the land for the cultivation of cash crops for export to their home countries. The authors point to the further devastation caused by the ‘concession companies’ in the 1870s who were given sole rights to the land and labour and to the fruits of the forests and soil over large areas, in particular in Central, Eastern and South Africa. The inhabitants of those areas were literally sold to the concession authorities and subjected to the most appalling treatment which apparently caused their population to halve between 1880 and 1908.

Then came the big plantations, which from the very start were given the best possible terms enabling them fully to exploit Africa’s cheap manpower and resources. For example the Firestone Rubber Company was granted one million acres at a rate of $0.04 cents per acre developed. The authors describe in great detail the growth of plantations in the post colonial era and document the effect of their establishment on the local people.

Their adverse effect is made particularly clear in the case of Kenya. In this country, only seven per cent of the total land area has good soil and sufficient rainfall, yet nearly all of this has been taken over by large plantations. Four and a half per cent has adequate soil and the remainder is poor or suitable only for raising stock. The authors point out how nevertheless this country was traditionally self-sufficient in food. It is only since 1980 that it has had to import maize, its staple food.

The history of agriculture in Kenya is very much the same as it has been in other parts of Britain’s colonial empire. Traditional agriculture was destroyed by the introduction of a hut and poll tax which compelled subsistence farmers to earn a money income, thus forcing them into the cash economy or else causing them to abandon their farms and move to the cities in search of jobs. Since independence this trend has been maintained with the encouragement of foreign agricultural enterprises such as Nestlé. President Moi of Kenya has himself realised the adverse consequences of past and present policies. He recently stated:

“The problem is that unless a process is initiated whereby the allocation of certain assets, particularly land, housing and effective schooling is completely removed from the marketplace, the market will work in such a way as to counteract egalitarian reforms. Those allocated low-cost housing will sell it to landlords; beneficiaries of land redistribution will sell to efficient farmers; schools charging higher fees will hire more effective teachers, etc. In other words the intervention necessary to achieve true social harmony may be more thorough-going than a merely populist regime is able to envisage.”

Those words, however, do not seem to reflect any visible change in agricultural policy.

Tanzania is the only country in Africa to have avoided private foreign investment. Nevertheless, traditional agricultural practices have been effectively destroyed by the introduction of the Ujamaa village programme which has forced the rural population away from their traditional tribal areas into 8,000 large Ujamaa villages—the largest resettlement scheme in African history.

The World Bank has played its usual destructive role by encouraging the large scale cultivation of export crops and thereby pushing the peasant farmers into the more arid parts of the country. Tanzania’s main export crops are cashew nuts, coffee and sugar and tea which make up 80 per cent of the country’s export earnings. However, production of these commodities has been disappointing, largely because of the refusal of the tribesmen whose lives have been disrupted by the Ujamaa villages and the World Bank’s financial ventures to cooperate with the government. As a result, Tanzania has become increasingly dependent on aid. By 1979 Tanzania was receiving more than 580 million dollars in aid every year or 70 per cent of its development budget, again much from the World Bank.

The authors conclude that “there is a conflict between the need to grow cash crops for export and the need to grow foodcrops.” They also point out that the problem cannot be solved merely by increasing agricultural output. Most African countries still have a large peasant population “which has shown itself to be unwilling to adopt the solutions proposed by national governments.” Needless to say, it is not in their interests to do so. Governments are not particularly interested in the fate of the peasants; they pay them lower prices for their products and “their prime allegiance is to their political base in the towns and the Westernised privileged elite.” Because of the opposition of the peasant population to their destructive programmes, “governments have adopted advanced agricultural schemes bypassing rural people and further isolating them both politically and economically.” These take the form of ever more massive farming enterprises, often devoted to the production of a single cash for export. A case in point is the large rice growing project now being set up in the Caramance region of Senegal: 30,000 hectares will be farmed using high technology in order to grow rice for the urban population. Such schemes, needless to say, can only increase the already serious problem of malnutrition in Africa.

The only answer, it is intimated, is to find ‘radical solutions structured on peasant organisation’. Such change, however, will be difficult to achieve. Caught up in the orbit of the world market economy, governments have become dependent on foreign currency earned by exporting plantation crops for their day-to-day survival. For them, radical change could mean their own suicide.

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