When asked the question “what’s it like to work in (country x)?” we know that many of us resort to well-meaning but uninformative responses like “it’s complicated,” “it’s nuanced,” or “it all varies wildly from place to place.” We’re afraid to generalize so we err toward making no substantive response. While it would be wholly inappropriate to perpetuate stereotypes or make sweeping claims (not the least of which because it’s dangerous), providing no response means a lost opportunity to impart knowledge and engender more nuanced and context-specific questions.
Recently, we were asked to give a general presentation about Sub-Saharan Africa with a focus on agriculture to a group of New York state farmers and agri-business professionals in the LEAD NY program in preparation for their upcoming trip to South Africa. We jumped at the chance to share some of our most profound moments working, studying, and traveling throughout Africa but, as we started to really explore all of the things we wanted to say, we found ourselves falling back on the “it’s complicated” mantra. To steer clear of saying nothing, we defaulted to the details of our own research and geographic focuses—the things we are confident we know something about. On reflection, we realize that we should have risked generalizing in order to achieve the middle ground.
So, we are here for a “re-do” of sorts. What are the most important things to keep in mind when visiting Africa and, more specifically, seeing agriculture in Africa for the first time? Here are seven points we wish we had done a better job of making.
- Africa is a huge continent made up of 54 countries with a tremendous diversity of people, histories, colonial legacies, levels of economic development, cultures, languages, norms, politics, etc. This does indeed make understanding Africa “complicated,” but also fascinating. One of the most rewarding parts of traveling within Africa is noting and asking questions about the differences you observe. It can also be illuminating to consider the commonalities that connect people within and across African countries and to other peoples and cultures around the world.
- Rural areas in Africa are often dominated by agriculture. About 65-75 percent of Africa’s labor force is employed in agriculture, relative to 1-2 percent of the labor force in the US. Even if a household does not farm, it is highly likely that a family member will work as an agricultural laborer elsewhere. As a corollary, similar to many farm communities in the US, agricultural households often diversify their income stream to include work from the non-farm economy as well.
- Agriculture doesn’t operate on one-size-fits-all principles. African farms are about one fifth as productive as American farms, and one might assume that simply adopting US-style agricultural practices would help African farmers to attain similar productivity (and therefore, prosperity) levels. However, incredible differences in the environment—biophysical, institutional, economic, and even cultural—mean that practices and technologies employed must be unique to the constraints facing African farmers. Moreover, some of the economic decisions that might look like bad ones from an American agriculture perspective may actually be cost effective, efficient, or even optimal ones for African farmers given these many differences (i.e., the namesake of this blog).
- Risk management matters to agricultural investment. American farmers enjoy extensive formal risk management institutions; most obviously, nearly 90 percent of US farmland is covered by government insurance programs. In most African contexts, formal insurance products are not available, while risks (such as drought, pests, and price variation) abound. So agrarian households rely upon informal insurance mechanisms (like borrowing from family and friends) or else find other ways to cope after a shock (like selling hard-earned assets). The lack of full insurance means that farmers are plagued by uncertainty about what the coming agricultural season will bring and how it will affect their household’s welfare, the very thought of which influences farm management decisions up front.
- Food security has many more dimensions than just a good harvest. Despite the stories and images of starvation perpetuated by our media, food is generally available across Africa, if not through domestic production then through import. Food insecurity can be a problem even when markets are flush if people can’t afford food or are constrained by conflict or other factors. Even when food is available and accessible, the human body may not be able to utilize food nutrients appropriately (for example, due to illness and infection).
- The great heterogeneity across Africa (see point 1) comes into play in the agricultural landscape. While many differences in attributes can be explained by economic factors like markets, prices, and infrastructure, a complex array of other (non-market) dimensions also affect agricultural decision-making. For example, some crop-choices may appear to be “irrational,” until we learn how these choices have strong ties to culture, gender, or may be affected by conflict.
- Many people you meet will be curious about you. Do not be alarmed or put off by the common ideas or misconceptions that many Africans will have about who you are as an American or an ambassador of the country from which you traveled. Western culture is replete with at least as many irritating and destructive stereotypes about Africa and Africans, despite our virtually unbounded access to accurate information. If you interact with an open and curious mind, then you will encounter limitless opportunities to teach and to learn.
We are, of course, just scratching the surface. Many writers and bloggers are excellent sources of nuanced information to help orient oneself before traveling and thinking critically about agriculture in Africa. As we said, it’s complicated.
** The authors thank Leah Bevis for sharing content used in this post.