Paving Roads to Prosperity for Africa’s Farmers

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By Emma Naluyima

Joel Cherope, a young farmer from Kapchorwa in eastern Uganda had four tons of cabbage, and the best market was hundreds of miles away in Sudan. It took him a week to get to Sudan instead of the usual 24 hours because the vehicle he hired was barely functional and the roads were in bad repair.  By the time he arrived at the border crossing, half the cabbages had been squashed, yet he still had to pay a high importation tax.

If the roads had been tarmacked and the vehicle in good condition — or better still air cargo available to ship the cabbages — it would have taken this young man one day or less to get to Sudan, and he could have earned a decent return on his months spent in the field. Instead, as he drove across the country he could do nothing but watch with growing frustration as the entire season’s profits were lost along with the cabbages in the back of his truck.

Uganda and countries across sub-Saharan Africa have ambitious plans to transform agriculture into a profitable venture for millions of small-scale farmers. Realizing these ambitions will require easing the strain of border crossings and paving roads—especially rural roads that connect remote areas to markets.

Only 34 percent of rural Africans live within one and a quarter miles of an all-season road, compared to 90 percent in East Asia. In Uganda, for example, a typical farm is about 62 miles from the nearest trading center and about 186-311 miles from a city center where a larger market is readily available. This means it takes a farmer approximately two days to reach his customers. In the meantime, much of the produce spoils and the farmer gets less than a quarter of what he anticipated. Poor roads are at the base of these delays. The transport system is tedious — and it exacts a high price, making the cost of moving goods two-to-three times higher than in developed countries.

The problem is not only one of potholes, dirt, gravel and mud.  It is also that the lack of roads exacerbates inequity. In Uganda, poverty is highest in the North (44 percent) and the East (25 percent), and lowest in the Central region (5 percent) and the Western region (9 percent). According to the African Development Bank, these disparities arise mostly from unevenly distributed infrastructure such as roads networks, good access to markets, and health and educational facilities.

The World Bank estimates that Africa’s farmers and agribusinesses could triple the value of the food market to reach one trillion dollars by 2030 with the right investments. A major roadblock is roads: connecting Africa’s rural farmers with its burgeoning cities, and growing demand for high-value food, nutritious foods. This includes enabling farm produce and to cross borders with a minimum of expense and delay.

One example is found in the countries bordering Africa’s Great Lakes: the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Rwanda, and Uganda. About 80,000 traders and their families in the region depend on cross-border trade. Many of these traders are women.

The border crossing in Goma, DRC sees an average of 20,000 to 30,000 crossings a day, and major bottlenecks hold traders up for hours on end.  In addition, border crossing are often a dangerous place, where women in particular find themselves victims of harassment and violence and are forced to pay bribes.

The newly announced Great Lakes Trade Facilitation Project, funded by the World Bank with a $79 million grant and credit program, will help address this major roadblock by developing regional markets near border crossings, including warehouses and other facilities to handle people, goods, and services, and strengthen government agencies and improve security.

The costs associated with improving transport and infrastructure, including railroads, airports, cooling stations and more is considerable.  Sub-Saharan Africa currently spends some $6.8 billion a year just on paving roads, but it is estimated to need closer to $10 billion.

Much of this money goes to mega projects: including the planned opening of the first trans-Africa highway connecting Cairo and Cape Town in 2016. As exciting as such a project is, Africa and her partners need to keep their eye on the real prize: connecting Africa’s millions of smallholder farmers with markets, beginning with their nearest towns and cities.

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Dr. Emma Naluyima is a smallholder farmer in Uganda and a private veterinarian focusing on clinical medicine and herd health. She is a 2015 Aspen New Voices Fellow.

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