Transformative partnerships in African agriculture: time to commit!

After a decade of hard work, the foundations are in place for substantive progress within African food systems. New tangible partnerships are emerging that combine focussed intent, long-term commitment and significant ambition. For anyone asking when African agriculture will deliver its long-touted potential, these partnerships offer the best hope for change at scale.

When will Africa’s food systems fulfil their promise?

The 2008 food crisis awoke public and private sector leaders to the long-term neglect of African agriculture. The sector’s productivity was a fraction of other regions, despite the agronomic potential to be a global breadbasket. With most Africans depending on agriculture for their livelihoods and food security, growth in the sector offered great hope for progress on poverty and hunger, as well as job creation, nutrition, gender equality, political stability, and climate change.

A decade ago, the dominant view was that African agriculture was a development activity, and not commercially attractive outside a few cash crops. Governments, business leaders and donors had low engagement with the sector, and had few channels for communication and planning with each other. Since then, we have much to celebrate.

Individual investments and initiatives have demonstrated there is real commercial potential for farmers and investors alike. Off-takers, hub-outgrower schemes, input providers, traders, processers, ICT providers and financial institutions are all learning how to make their business models work on a continent dominated by smallholder production.

At a continental level, and often at national-level, there is a new quality of cross-sector leadership. CAADP, the AU’s plan for African agriculture, has created the architecture for key protagonists to set goals, align their activities, and track progress. Whilst quality is variable, many countries have established National Agricultural Investment Plans, Ag Sector Working Groups, M&E frameworks, Cooperation Agreements, and Joint Sector Reviews. These elements are mirrored at the continental level through AU instruments. Major African institutions and initiatives have aligned ambitious programmes of support – notably AGRA, African Development Bank, and Grow Africa.

However, there is simmering frustration at the scale and pace of progress. Agricultural growth rates have improved, but rural economies are not yet providing the aspired commercial and developmental returns. Producers and agribusinesses continue to find their operating context – value chains, market systems and the wider enabling environment – to be highly inefficient and unreliable. For all the talk in capital cities, and for all the pockets of success, they are asking when will Africa’s food systems fulfil their promise?

A next generation of agricultural partnerships

Hope lies in a new generation of partnerships that are emerging. They are more focussed, more ambitious, and more committed, than anything we’ve seen before. They are coalescing strong, influential partners to strengthen key food systems at a scale that is substantive, tangible and commercially viable. Examples include:

  • Farm to Market Alliance: This initiative is initially focussed on maize and bean production in Tanzania, Zambia and Rwanda. It has brought together regional and international buyers to create stable demand at scale. This provides smallholders the confidence to invest in their farms and creates the economy of scale for providers of finance, inputs and other services. By 2019, the platform aims to engage 1.5 million farmers with US$750 million worth of contracts. Partners include AGRA, Bayer CropScience, IFC, Rabobank, Syngenta, Grow Africa, WFP and Yara.
  • IDH Landscapes: IDH is supporting a series of landscape programmes, which work with cross-sector partners to establish a long-term growth plan that balances community, commercial, and conservation goals. For example, in Liberia IDH has facilitated 20-year Production-Protection Agreements (PPAs), in which the communities, government and Palm Oil companies agree to conserve and actively protect a certain amount of forest in exchange for loan finance and technical assistance to increase agricultural productivity in targeted rural communities.
  • YieldWise: Rockefeller is forging ambitious partnerships to tackle post-harvest food loss in Africa, where 50 percent of fruits and vegetables, 40 percent of roots and tubers, and 20 percent of cereals are lost in the post-harvest stage or processes. For example, in Kenya new purchase agreements with Coca-Cola are allowing farmers to quickly sell their mangos to a guaranteed buyer without the burden of frequent travel to oversaturated, and sometimes distant, Kenyan markets. This stability is then the basis for providing additional support to the smallholders, such as training, data or better varieties.

This next generation of partnerships is possible because of the last decade’s work. They tap in to the cross-sector leadership networks now in place, and harness learning from more isolated success stories. Importantly, they bridge between the local and continental to offer change at a scale that is both concrete and transformative. These are partnerships focussed on action and investment, rather than talking and connecting.

There are common elements across such partnerships:

  • Clear and ambitious intent: These partnerships are focussed on specific parts of the food system, in which protagonists can perceive substantive long-term rewards from collaboration and joint investment. They do not articulate their goals in development platitudes. Their goals are geographically located, commercially cogent, and designed for scale.
  • Long-term commitment: Protagonists are profoundly committed to the partnerships – often under legally-binding agreements, and certainly with finance at risk. Their commitment to collaborate is often in terms of decades, rather than the historic 2 or 3-year horizon of development initiatives. This binds the partners together so that, as issues arrive during the journey of system change, they are forced to adapt and innovate rather than step back.
  • Agility: Traditional development initiatives adopt detailed linear planning. These plans quickly go awry as they hit a messy, unpredictable reality. The new breed of partnerships encourage agility to respond to both opportunities and threats. Their incentives are structured to encourage adaptive and iterative planning, with rapid feedback loops. If vanilla prices hit an all-time high, then it’s the right time to diversify smallholders in to cocoa production. If there is a maize surplus in Tanzania, then they can lobby to increase export quotas rather than crash the price.
  • Commercially led, politically anchored: Ambitious long-term projects require ongoing collaboration with government and community leadership, to survive social, economic or political shocks. This is more likely if they anchored within government priorities and plans, especially where these have emerged from inclusive consultation and so are more resilient to changes in leadership.

Time to commit!

Over the last decade, Wasafiri has worked extensively on Africa’s agricultural transformation agenda – particularly for CAADP and Grow Africa. These initiatives have brought together new partners from across institutional boundaries – public and private bodies, domestic and international companies, varied value chain actors etc. These now understand and value each other better. Encouragingly some new-found partners are committing to each other, because they realise they have a collective opportunity to reshape the systems in which they operate.

For example, through the AU’s Malabo Declaration, Heads of State have committed to forging inclusive value chain partnerships for key crops in each country. AGRA has a highly ambitious strategy for transforming food systems. And under Akin Adesina, AfDB aims to use its financial might to de-risk agricultural finance. All these are focussed on this meso-scale of catalysing substantive long-term partnerships capable of sustaining inclusive growth in the food economy.

By committing to long-term partnerships, companies have a strategic collective interest in nurturing a system that rewards all stakeholders from smallholder to investor. It also gives a great incentive for effective environmental management. At last, the sector is moving beyond the high-risk, short-term investment horizon that only works for extractive, exploitative commercial strategies.

This new generation of partnerships is vital, and Wasafiri wants to support this next important phase of Africa’s agricultural transformation. Our expertise on how to navigate complex change combines with a rich contextual understanding of African agriculture. Please get in touch if you need support with strategy or project management for transformative partnerships.