Agriculture today in North & West Africa: Risks and Challenges

After twenty years of working in agriculture in Greece covering various aspects (seeds, plant protection products, fertilizers), my professional “fate” has brought me to be responsible now for a large region: that of the Mediterranean basin and the greater part of the African continent. This wide area presents all the contrasts as well as challenges. From the greenhouses of Turkey, olive groves and oil of Greece, strawberries of Spain to melons in Tunisia, the citrus fruit of Morocco and the cocoa trees of Cameroon. My current position has consequently granted me considerable experience with new crops, different ways of thinking and implementation, and primarily with People of different cultures and backgrounds. It has also given me cause for much thought on the sustainability of farming in these countries and regions of production and I decided to share some of my experiences, thoughts and suggestions through a series of articles. The first of these refers to Northwest Africa.

The Embola crisis and latest developments

What came out of the Embola crisis in Africa that is of significance for farming in Africa but also for our own industry ?

- Special warnings from the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO);

- Food restrictions and significant shortages of foods and other products (e.g., palm oil, cocoa, etc.);

- The enforcement of quarantine zones to restrict the spread of hemorrhagic fever, which caused such panic that citizens rushed to procure as much food as possible;

- Restriction of commerce through ports, leading to a reduction in the supplies of foods to several countries that import cereals, etc.

In the last decade, however, there has been a counter-trend in Africa which remains strong. Its chief characteristics are:

· Multinational giants investing in the farming industry in Africa, showing the way forward for agricultural production for those countries

· Purchases of large areas of land and investments in huge (by European standards) monocultures in order to secure a large-scale farming industry with parallel pressure on small independent farmers.

· Investments in training of members of the farming communities to increase crop productivity and to secure future labour resources with higher productivity levels

· Utilization of the most productive cultivation methods adopting new ways and the creation of agricultural product networks.

It is no secret, after all, that two thirds of the agricultural land currently targeted for purchase/investment is in Africa.

What about farm hands?

During harvest periods the demand for farm labourers is very high, given of course the labour-intensive nature of the work. This leads unfortunately to the exploitation of child labour under extremely harsh conditions. Most children love chocolates but there are some that loathe them,” is a common saying that refers to the children who work on cocoa plantations.

At the same time, enormous pressure is exerted on producers to keep the labour cost low.

Is there anything positive behind all this?

The developing countries of Africa have a low debt level, an abundant supply of cheap labour (not in direct relation to productivity), attract significant levels of foreign investment and, finally, demonstrate significant growth. The huge potential gives them good reason to look to the future with optimism, to overcome their weaknesses, such as the level of poverty, corruption and social inequalities.

How can those of us involved in inputs into the agricultural process contribute to improving productivity and efficiency?

Let’s first look at the following questions:

- How can a company active in the agri-food chain (a more fitting description than fertilizer manufacturer) contribute to maximising crop harvests?

- Can we introduce or further promote new crop care methods to replace “Traditional Farming”, which requires a lot of labour working in extremely harsh conditions, given the huge areas involved and the pressing demands of profit maximisation from a work force that has not yet attained the level of other, more developed countries?

  • Where do the interests of the farmer, industry and the environment meet with the improvement of conditions for the work force?

Let’s see if we can help on one of those problems. As we well know from examples in the developed world, the overuse of fertilizers without knowhow from specialists has led in some areas to pollution of the soil and water resources.

On the other hand, in most of Sub-Saharan Africa, they are used less and “traditional” fertilizers are still applied, using moreover traditional methods which, together with the lack of soil analysis (and therefore knowledge of the real nutrient requirements), have led to the removal of nutrients from the soil not replaced by other crops, this soil degradation resulting in lower returns.

From our side, then, the innovation of slow release fertilizers presents itself as one of the solutions to the problem of soil infertility and crop productivity.

The use of slow release fertilizers means a reduction in the number of fertilizer applications and by extension a reduction in labour requirements and costs. Imagine large areas of tropical cultivations using products providing a controlled release of nutrients over 6 or 12 or 16 months… The result will be combined benefits to the conditions of cultivation as well as the environment and the upgrading of the conditions and productivity of labour.

What could be a more reliable and effective solution in African countries with such characteristics than making nutrients available to plants in a constant and continuous flow according to their real requirements?

Naturally, to achieve the correct nutrition/topdressing, the appropriate parameters need to be calculated:

- appropriate fertilizer for the soil and crop

- amounts to be added each time

- method and timing of application.

The proper design of the plant nutrition management programme by specialists in plant nutrition, taking into account all the parameters, is vital to maximize results in tropical cultivations.

COMPO has among the highest levels of knowhow and responsibility as well as a culture of extroversion, geographical expansion and transfer of innovative technologies. Combined with its products, which are the results of top research carried out in new agricultural areas, these elements make COMPO the most appropriate partner for this purpose.

And I ask myself:

Is it not worth investing to promote this technology?

Is it not worth our trying to include this technology and concept into everyday farming practice, replacing conventional fertilizers over the next few years?

Is it not worth our contributing, in whatever small or large part we can, to the increase in productivity for the investors but also with the principal motive of a parallel improvement in the working conditions of the labour force, both on the large intensive cultivations and on the small and medium farms, which represent the backbone of production, so as to bring harmony to the sector?

And I answer myself:

IT IS WORTH IT!
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