Do Americans know that there are cities in Africa?

I’m convinced that they do not.

Two articles have appeared in the NYT in the past week on development. One dealt with agriculture in South America, and the other with power and electricity.

The first, “Iowa in the Amazon,” was written by Stephen Porder, an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Brown. He write on soy beam farming in Brazil:

Despite what you might hear at your local farmers’ market or Whole Foods, not all big farms are bad. Nor are all small organic farms sustainable. They may produce high-quality food, but if they don’t produce a lot of calories per acre, they are doing little to help increase the global food supply. How we increase this supply over the next few decades will determine agriculture’s sustainability. It’s worth exploring why this is so, because sustainable food production is a fundamental human need. Getting it right will require us to carefully assess the consequences of where and how we farm.

Which is a reasonable position to take. Farming is (and has always been) about maximizing yield from a limited amount of land. The responses to his article are telling, most notably this one:

“Highly mechanized farms in the poor countries of the world create numerous environmental and social problems. These mega-farms rely on large quantities of relatively cheap fossil fuels as well as pesticides that contaminate water, soil, food and people.”

Also, a reasonable position. Now, I’m willing to entertain the costs of large scale, efficient farming, but the comments suggest that readers haven’t considered the costs of small scale agriculture, most notably in sub-Saharan Africa. I’m thinking that the American readers believe that a lady cultivating maize in her yard in Kenya, is the same as a household garden in the United States. It is not.

Small scale farmers face massive levels of risk on a daily basis. A poor rainy season could devastate the small crop intended to provide sustenance and livelihood for a likely growing family. Without developed systems of production, transportation and market efficiency, small holder farms have no way to supplement major crop losses. Thus, efforts which seek to exclusively bolster this sector overlook the importance of 1) large scale agriculture as a buffer against individual crop losses 2) transportation (roads) development which links producers to markets (and vice versa) and 3) how the labor intensive and inefficient nature of small scale agriculture impedes participation in other economic activities.

I fear that Americans have an image of Africa which doesn’t fit the realities on the ground and I fear that we in the development world are somewhat guilty for propagating it. Pictures of happy though poor maize producing households are great for getting us to donate to microcredit causes (for example) romanticize rural poverty, but risk whitewashing the precarious nature of this lifestyle.

The truth is, that African urbanization is occurring at the fastest pace that humanity has ever seen. Malawi’s cities grow by more than 6% per year, and by 2050, nearly 60% of Africans will live in cities. African cities are so huge as the make NYC seem like a small hamlet. Lagos, Nigeria has 21 million people.

Though many urban dwellers are growing crops in the cities, it is impossible to assume that small holder agriculture alone can possibly support hundreds of millions of non-crop producing Africans. Though we may dislike images of tractors moving through giant African farms, the reality is that Africa is facing the same challenges we did during our own development booms. Emphasizing efficiency of production at all levels should be the biggest item on the agenda.

As for energy, I’ll leave to reader to explore the vitriolic nature of the comments on this piece in the times, that had the gall to suggest that developing countries, facing increasing demand for stable sources of power, might simply consider domestically abundant coal as one of many options. The readers are apparently under the impression that the only energy requirement that Africa needs is for cooking. Apparently, they’ve never experienced a blackout in Nairobi.

Though I’m no coal fan, African countries have to consider their needs and weigh out the costs and benefits of the methods of addressing them.

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About Pete Larson

Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at the Nagasaki University Institute for Tropical Medicine

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