Is soil the new oil in Africa's quest for sustainable development?

Friday, 22 August 2014 07:30 GMT

Farmer Bintou Samake plants beans while carrying her son Mahamadou on her back at a farm in Heremakono, Mali, Jan. 22, 2013. REUTERS/Joe Penney

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Africa’s soil and ecosystems need investment to protect them from climate change and degradation, often caused by resource extraction

Africa is enormously rich in minerals and oil. The continent has 10 percent of known global oil reserves, and more is likely to be discovered.

In just the last six years, new major sources of oil, gas and minerals have been located in Guinea, Kenya, Mozambique, Niger, Tanzania and Uganda. African oil production is expected to grow at an average 6 percent a year for the foreseeable future.

Yet some of Africa’s biggest oil- and mineral-rich countries, with the highest per capita gross domestic product (GDP) on the continent, are also all ranked low or extremely low on the human development index. They also lie within the region most vulnerable to climate change – which significantly threatens future development.

One big problem is that as GDPs rise, reinvestment of that wealth into social improvements has not always occurred.

The 2014 Africa Progress Panel (APP) report, Grain, Fish, Money - Financing Africa’s Green and Blue Revolutions, presents the two faces of Africa. On the one hand, very robust economic growth, and on the other, poverty levels that have hardly shifted.

But the report suggests it’s not all doom and gloom as Africa could change this dual reality fairly rapidly.

For this to happen, we need to answer the question: what is the best way to utilise resources to positively impact African development?

Historically, countries with high export earnings and economic growth created by oil, gas, iron ore and other natural resources have fallen victim to the “resource curse” or the “paradox of plenty”. These terms characterise countries that have failed to channel profits from natural resources into social improvements and development.


Resource-endowed African countries will need to break this cycle if they are going to achieve sustainable development and protect their often already degraded ecosystems against climate change.

The extractive industries that evolve from natural resource discoveries are not associated with large employment opportunities, but they do tend to be linked with high environmental degradation. There is also extreme pressure to reinvest newfound wealth quickly to boost lagging social conditions, with little emphasis on long-term sustainability.

In pursing new opportunities for revenue, African governments should be wise and seek professional legal and policy advice as they negotiate their deals, particularly in how they use the funds to generate growth and jobs and to spur sustainable development.

With 65 percent of Africa’s workforce directly dependent on agriculture for survival, and dire food insecurity in many places, it is Africa’s soil that should be targeted for growth and development. In other words, Africa’s soil should be its next “oil” in a changing climate.

Existing fossil fuel and mineral reserves will run out, but Africa’s soil and its ecosystems, including rivers and forests, will remain.

Africa has 10 percent of global fresh water, 17 percent of global forest cover, 25 percent of the world’s mammal species, 22 percent of plant species, and a fifth of global land.

Yet these precious resources are under severe threat from degradation – often associated with natural resource extraction – and climate change.


Climate change threatens to reduce by up to 70 percent groundwater recharge, and cut rainfall by 20 percent in certain parts of Africa. It could shrink the growing area for 81-97 percent of African plant species studied. And it could cut crop yields by up to 17 percent for wheat, 5 percent for maize, 15 percent for sorghum, and 10 percent for millet, according to UNEP’s 2013 report on Africa’s Adaptation Gap.

Climate proofing the natural environment for sustained growth will - at least in part - require shifting oil revenues to agricultural investment. Across the continent, demand for food is soaring, especially in rapidly growing cities. The continent has a food import bill of over $35 billion per year and imports of food exceed exports by 30 percent.

Job creation and wealth generation to meet the needs of a growing population could correct this trajectory. As the 2014 APP report demonstrates, the conditions are ripe not just for a booming agricultural sector, but also for a big drop in poverty - crucially needed on a continent where 240 million people are chronically undernourished.

Nearly two thirds of global arable land is in Africa, yet its agricultural output is the lowest in the world. But with all this, the solution is there in plain sight: what the APP report calls a “uniquely African Green Revolution”.

Improving the local environment, and building resilient and highly productive food systems, are key to prosperity and security.


Opportunities abound for working with nature rather than against it. A recently released UNEP publication on adaptation actions in Africa details the cases of eight countries that have invested in ecosystem-based adaptation, spurred green economy opportunities and secured climate resilience.

As the African continent enters the second half of the “Year of Agriculture and Food Security”, declared by the African Union, and leaders look to draft next year’s budgets and policies, it is to be hoped that the swelling coffers of natural resource windfalls are returned to the land and people from where they came.

In the words of Nigerian Agriculture Minister Dr. Akinwumi Adesina, “nobody drinks oil, nobody smokes gas, but everybody needs food.”

The vice president of the World Bank in Africa also put it clearly: “Better education, health, nutrition, and other human development indicators, not just economic growth, should be the benchmark for smart, effective oil and mineral investments.”

One way to do this is to invest the earnings from oil back into the Earth’s ecosystems that feed us. New research should help facilitate this by focusing on the most effective ways of reinvesting natural resource revenues into agriculture, and how best to measure progress in doing so.

Richard Munang is UNEP's Africa Regional Climate ChangeProgramme Co-ordinator, tweeting @MTingem. Jesica Andrews is the ecosystem adaptation officer with UNEP’s Regional Office for Africa: @la_peqi