Nicholas Kristof paints a quaint but flawed picture of the state of African agriculture

Florence Osei works in a shop that sells agricultural inputs which are crucial to Ghanaian farmers growing cocoa and other crops. Providing these resources to small farmers is critical to helping them become more productive and profitable. These advances in Ghana's agriculture infrastructure have helped them cut hunger levels by 75 percent in the last 20 years. (Namong, Ghana, 2011). Some rights reserved, Gates Foundation.

Nicholas Kristof paints a quaint but flawed picture of the state of African agriculture (“Obama’s fantastic boring idea” July 11).

Agriculture is vital for the development of Africa. It affects employment, income and poverty reduction as well as being central to the current debate on food security. It deserves a more robust analysis than is implied by Mr Kristof. If it wishes to play a useful role the West needs to stop treating Africa like a special needs patient.  Africa is not deficient; it does not need a new economic paradigm. Sustainable development will only come if it proceeds along economically robust lines – successful interventions should be measured by the same high standards the rest of the World takes for granted. Would we get excited about stories of foot pumps and mud storage in Brazil?

The discussion on agricultural in Africa cannot ignore the fact that, without exception, economic development coincides with a commercializing farming sector and an overall reduction of the share of the population engaged in agriculture. This is not to say that supporting smallholders isn’t important and laudable – but that more attention needs to be paid to creating businesses that have the potential to transform the agriculture sector. Implying that subsistence farmers can play this role risks short-changing the entire continent.

In the long run a successful agriculture sector will be built on an environment that allows markets to develop and businesses to thrive. As in almost every other case agriculture will succeed if it develops along commercial lines rather than some ideological blueprint. In many developed countries and even in the BRICS state subsidies have played and continue to play an important role. In Africa, government finances are stretched and generally unable to provide the necessary support. This creates a natural role for the development community. But in order to play a catalytic role the development community must embrace the need to support primary production and to back the agriculture Small and Medium Enterprise (SME) sector with risk capital.

Currently, foreign interventions into African agriculture are polarized between shoring up subsistence farmers (as advocated by many of the NGOs) and supporting downstream businesses through the various private equity vehicles created with the backing of the Development Finance Institutions. Processing, logistics, storage, etc. are all vital for long term success but they only make any sense if there is a thriving primary sector. SMEs are the natural habitat of businesses that embrace local communities in creating employment and generating income. They are more likely to be attuned to local requirements.  They are also the most likely to embrace smallholders as part of their business..

It is always heartening to hear the type of stories that Mr Kristof relays in his piece, but they must be put in context. African agriculture continues to underperform and remains hugely inefficient. But the potential remains huge and the need for reform is critical. We do not wish to denigrate the efforts of the aid/development community but merely wish to point out some inherent inconsistencies and some priorities that need to addressed if the West is to play a useful role.

We agree that Mr Obama and other Western leaders can play a vital role. Already they have made public pronouncements and various economic gestures such as the GAFSP initiative. But by continuing to shy away from the difficult interventions, putting the burden of being the engine for change on smallholder farmers while encouraging their development finance institutions to pick the low hanging fruites,  this will be another missed opportunity.