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A Cargill employee trains farmers in Zambia to help improve their yields and raise their incomes.

In Africa, Learning How Food Can Move

Written by Emery Koenig

What if you could watch a new world emerge right before your eyes? In Africa, one of the most dynamic regions of the planet, it feels like you can observe transformations almost day by day.

On a recent visit to Zambia, I met with a group of smallholder farmers who had previously been trying to feed their families year-round with the half ton of crops they could grow on each hectare of land, far below the world average. Eighty percent of Africa’s farmers are smallholders who cultivate less than two hectares.

After some straightforward training on planting, pest management, post-harvest storage and more, these farmers told me they had boosted their yields eight-fold, to about 4 tons per hectare. They explained that not only could they now feed their families, they were reinvesting to grow their businesses.

Africa contains about 60 percent of the world’s uncultivated agricultural land, but it’s not just the potential for food production where the numbers boggle the mind. With 55 countries and more than a billion people, the continent is home to eight of the 15 fastest-growing economies. It’s the youngest place on earth, with 200 million people between the ages of 15 and 24, a group that the U.N. estimates will double in size by 2045. And urbanization is occurring in Africa at twice the pace of the world average. As young consumers migrate to cities and their incomes rise, they likely will change their dietary patterns to look less like their parents’ and more like those of city-dwellers in other parts of the world.

All of this means that Africa will play a crucial role in the pursuit of global food security in the decades ahead. Making sure Africa can realize its agricultural potential will not only enable it to feed its own people, it will help lift its citizens out of poverty and serve as a cornerstone for broader economic growth. But the challenges facing Africa’s societies will be significant as they undergo rapid transitions through different phases of development and look to build food supply chains that often will stretch across borders.

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Logistics and infrastructure to connect points along supply chains will be a crucial part of building sustainable food systems for Africa. PHOTOGRAPH BY PALANI MOHAN

It is a fitting place for Cargill to invest. During our 150-year history, we’ve consistently been present on the edge of frontiers, whether the American Midwest in the 1800s, Latin America in the 1950s and 1960s, Eastern Europe following the Cold War, or China in recent decades. In each of those regions, the food and agriculture sectors were drivers of economic growth that raised standards of living. In each, we helped move food from where it was being grown to where it was needed, linking farmers to markets.

While the countries of Africa seem poised for a similar trajectory of development, it will not be easy. We believe Cargill can contribute, but we need a wide range of partners who can view this development from different vantage points, then come together and explore solutions. It’s a fact that has become increasingly clear: Today’s environment is simply too complex for any one institution to effect positive change on its own.

That’s why this month, Cargill is leading a learning journey to South Africa and Zambia, where 25 thought leaders from business, academia, government agencies, the non-profit sector and media will examine different models for food and agriculture, and ask questions about how Africa can move from being a net importer of food to being the home of strong agricultural systems and a contributor to global food security.

The questions we’ll ask might seem straightforward, but the answers will not be simple. How can small-scale farmers transition to commercial production? What will attract youth to farming as a profession?

What infrastructure is needed, especially across borders, to connect the points along supply chains?

Which foods will a rapidly growing urban population need and want? And how will climate change affect production in different regions?

I’ve been lucky enough to travel regularly to Africa during my career. Meeting the people of this incredibly diverse continent, I’ve been deeply impressed by their optimism, even in the face of large challenges. A recent McKinsey study found that Africans are among the most hopeful people on the planet, with 84 percent believing they will be better off in two years than they are today.

I’m excited to continue learning, both on our journey this month and during the larger, ongoing one that Africa is undertaking.

Emery Koenig is Cargill’s vice chairman and chief risk officer.

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