Statistics, industrialisation and agricultural revolution, three challenges for the continent: my thoughts on Carlos Lopes’ Africa in Transformation

Africa and the statistical challenge
Africa must invest in the production of better quality data, because the lack of reliable and independent statistical systems can compromise diagnosis and forecasting. Many analyses are distorted by the lack of reliable statistics. Thus, in many countries, the Gross Domestic Product is underestimated, says Carlos Lopes. But if wealth is poorly measured, how can appropriate tax policies be developed? Africa’s ability to pay is undoubtedly diminished. An additional 1% tax effort, which may seem marginal, would nevertheless bring in more than all the public development assistance from industrialized countries! Let’s repeat it because this point is essential: strengthening Africa’s statistical capacity must be a priority, both for individual countries and for the African Union and its related bodies. This was one of the key points of Carlos Lopes’ strategy when he was head of the UN Economic Commission for Africa (Uneca).

Africa and the industrialisation challenge
Carlos Lopes’ book also provides a reflection on the development model that Africa must adopt to create the conditions for a structural transformation of its economy. Indeed, despite remarkable resilience since the 2008 financial crisis, despite some of the highest average growth rates in the world in the past decade, the continent has not succeeded in creating enough jobs or curbing extreme poverty. The dynamism of its domestic markets, the good performance of its exports and the significant increase in investment flows do not compensate for the lack of genuine industrial policies.

The examples of Brazil from the 1950-1980 period, China, which, after its agricultural revolution, became the world’s factory, and, more recently, Malaysia or the United Arab Emirates show that emergence is inseparable from the industrialization process. Carlos Lopes’ observation is worrying: Africa’s share of world industrial production fell by a quarter between 1980 and 2010, from 1.9% to 1.5%. The author calls for smart protectionism, inspired by the policies implemented in emerging countries, and for a proactive approach by public authorities on this subject. The failure of the industrialisation attempts of the 1960s and 1970s should no longer be used as an excuse for inertia, as contexts and objectives have changed radically.

Africa and the agricultural productivity challenge
It is urgent to change our view of agriculture and recognize that “the farmer is an entrepreneur like any other”, the expression I used in my book Africa’s Critical Choices. It is also the idea forcefully hammered out by Carlos Lopes, which underlines that the challenges of industrialization and the modernization of the agricultural sector are closely linked. While most countries on the continent doubled their average transformation rate after the CAADP was launched in 2003 and agricultural productivity increased by an average of 67%, this rate hides huge disparities. Progress remains insufficient, although Egypt, Ivory Coast, Nigeria or Ghana have performed remarkably well. The average yield of cereal crops in Africa represents only 40% of the average world yield.

Subsistence agriculture on small plots, characterized by very low productivity, remains the dominant mode of production (80%). It does not generate surpluses. Marginalized farmers have limited access to finance and are unable to integrate into the value chain.

However, a paradigm shift is required. African agriculture will have to support the continent’s exponential population growth and rapid urbanization: by 2020, 50% of Africans will live in cities. The agribusiness revolution cannot be postponed any longer and the leaders of this revolution must be those who are today called “smallholder farmers”.