Lessons from Africa
January 2008
As a young child, Africa was a mysterious and far-away land. I knew of it only through the experiences of a nun who worked in a Cameroun mission. She would visit our school once a year to tell us, with the help of a little slide show, about her strange country of adoption. We would find
comfort and thank goodness we were lucky enough to be born in Canada.

Today, Africa is at our doorstep. A few shots and a valid passport are all you need to walk this foreign land for a few days, long enough to do business and then back again, without any other inconvenience. Last November, I had the opportunity to perform my first mission on African soil through SOCODEVI. Before my departure, and to better understand the context, I spent a few evenings reading Robert Calderisi’s book, “The Trouble with Africa - Why Foreign Aid Isn’t Working”.

Calderisi has first hand experience since he worked with the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and with the World Bank. This book enlightened me. But I especially discovered some troublesome parallels between African problems and the challenges facing agriculture today.

In the picture painted of post-colonial Africa, Calderisi reports that at the time of independence, several African countries did not have the necessary resources to make it on their own. Agriculture, declares the author, was not sufficiently, nor harmoniously developed, focus was on export products rather than foodstuffs produced to feed the country’s own people. Upon reading this, I immediately thought of the tireless efforts currently deployed by our producers to promote self-sufficiency. This is, I thought, an important battle.

A little farther into the book, Calderisi relates the story of a tourist purchasing nuts in a Sierra Leone village: “The village was surrounded by nut trees, but the only nuts for sale were in boxes imported from England…”. This reminded me of what John Saul said at a conference recently.

During his stay in Alberta, he met a woman who raised lamb. But to his great disappointment, he was unable to purchase and enjoy this local product since it was destined for the U.S marketplace. The only lamb available in neighbouring markets was imported from New Zealand….

Here in Québec, we are also hearing such stories. Stories which seem increasingly more common. And I’m sure you’ll agree, stories that defy all logic.

Calderisi works hard to set Africa’s problems within their historical context and states that the great African planners, once independence was declared, viewed agriculture as “an archaic means of making a living, a legacy of their colonial days” rather than a natural resource. They underestimated the importance of agriculture in their haste to join the industry and service race. Goodness! Is there a lesson for us to learn? Aren’t we experiencing a wide-ranging disinterest in agriculture, as seen through the mass desertion of the profession by many producers and the clear lack of a next generation to take over the reigns?

Mark my words, Africa is not as far as we think. Let’s learn from other people’s mistakes. Because in the short term, if we’re not careful, we’ll be stuck in the same trap. Food self-sufficiency, which acknowledges the value of agriculture, protects it and considers it a national asset this ain’t exactly chopped liver. The same applies to trade and the currency it brings into the country, but the latter should only come after the capacity to target our agricultural products for our own dietary needs as a priority. In the end, we’ll all be better for it. Including Africa.

 

Colette Lebel, agr.
Director of Cooperative Affairs
La Coop fédérée
Email: colette.lebel@lacoop.coop
Fax: (514) 858-2025
 



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