The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997


Sir John Major’s Speech at the Farm Africa Dinner – 16 September 2010

The text of Sir John Major’s speech at the Farm Africa Dinner, held at Fishmonger’s Hall in London on Thursday 16th September 2010.


When John De Ramsey invited me to join you this evening, it was easy to accept.

I first visited Africa in late 1965 during the Biafran War. I went there as a young banker working for the then Standard Bank of West Africa. I was lucky enough to be stationed at Jos, in northern Nigeria and it was there that Africa first attracted me. I had never seen – before or since – such enormous skies and open space. To me, it was idyllic – and still is. And yet, despite its allure and its promise, Africa is so often overlooked and disregarded. But I believe the time is coming when its profile will change.

Some doubt that, but I think they are wrong. Change is almost the only constant in today’s hectic world.

At the time I visited Africa, NATO and the Warsaw Pact were aiming missiles at one another. China was still slumbering. Asia had not begun its rise. The Soviet Union had an iron control of much of Eastern Europe. The EU was in its infancy. Latin America was a Continent of revolutions. The Gulf States were still poor. Oil was $3 a barrel. None of that applies now.

The global market has taken root, and that will continue to change everything – not least agriculture.

There are few things men and women can’t manage without, but food is at the top of that list. Nor will – or could – this ever change. But its importance will grow, simply because the sheer scale of demand for more food of a higher quality will be un-ending.

At the time of Christ, the world population – so far as we know – was a mere 300 million. By 1900 – 19 centuries later – it had risen to one and a half billion – an increase of just over one billion in 1900 years. Today, it is six and a half billion, having quadrupled in the last century, and we are growing at nearly one billion every decade, as opposed to one billion every 1900 years.

Better diet, environment, medicines, will accelerate that trend. The result is a world population estimated at nine billion by 2050: to put that more vividly, it is the equivalent of two more Chinas in the next 40 years – and, of course, agriculture must feed them.

Contrast tomorrow’s demand with today’s reality. Today, one billion people go hungry each day, of which well over one-quarter are in Africa – many of them subsistence farmers. It needs a revolution to feed them – not so much in the husbandry of farming, but in growing food where it is needed, or transporting it from where it is grown to where it is consumed. In Africa – where a sharp population growth is anticipated – that will, quite literally, be a matter of life and death. That is an equation Africa understands.

In Africa, agriculture is an ancient trade. Cereals were being grown in North Africa as early as 6,000 BC, and by 1500 BC, root crops, grain crops and nomadic pastoralism was the predominant way of life for sub-Saharan Africans. That is the first point to be made. Africans can farm. It is in their history. And in their blood.

So it is today. But even a cursory examination shows that much more needs to be done. Although agriculture provides the main livelihood for nearly two-thirds of Africa’s population, much of it is subsistence farming, and the dire reality is that one in four Africans is under-nourished.

Here, I wish to pay tribute to Farm Africa. It works to help African communities feed themselves and then become small businesses. Charity can feed a man, but wise charity helps him to feed himself, sell his surplus to his neighbours – and then more widely. And that surplus is needed – evidence suggests that, to meet the Millennium Development Goals, 124 million more Africans need to be lifted out of poverty in sub-Saharan Africa alone by the end of this year.

No-one should doubt that Africans can farm. They are hard working and often have a fine business sense. Micro-finance from banks – tiny sums sometimes no more than £100 – often provide the seed-corn and, as the banks will tell you, women are usually the best guardians of the cash.

Let me dispel some enduring myths. Not so long ago, most people’s view of Africa was largely defined by disturbing images of people suffering from poor government, corruption, violations of human rights, severe poverty and pandemic health crises. Against this focal image, both aid donors and investors are discouraged, and it’s not surprising that many investors viewed the African Continent as a submerging, rather than an emerging, market. But I believe they were wrong.

Nowadays, such attitudes are shifting quickly. After lagging behind the rest of the world in the 1990s, African economic growth averaged 5% a year from 2001 until the recent financial crisis, whilst the rest of the world averaged just over 4%. Africa has been enjoying its most sustained period of economic expansion in over 30 years and, despite the financial upheaval which unavoidably slowed growth, the future looks bright as well. Real GDP growth in Africa is expected to continue to rise as the effects of the recent crisis dissipate. Investors are beginning to notice this, and the knock-on effect of that will be enormous.

One key element, of course, is strong commodity prices. Africa is fortunate to be endowed with 10% of the world’s known oil reserves, 8% of gas reserves, 54% of gold reserves and a wealth of other precious metals, industrial metals and diamonds.

This commodity boom is inspiring a huge increase in foreign direct investment in Africa – notably by China. China is active in nearly all parts of the Continent, especially in countries such as Sudan or Angola, where they have significant contracts to buy oil. But she is doing more than that. China is developing infrastructure projects, often tied to aid, using China’s partners and contractors and, in so doing, improving African infrastructure.

China’s interest extends beyond oil to minerals and forests and arable products. And where China leads, others will follow, in a development that is changing both the perception and reality of the changing African market.

What of agriculture? Firstly, Africa is blessed with a land mass significantly larger than that of China, India, the US and Europe combined. I make that point for two reasons: in the context of its tremendous size, it is overwhelmingly likely that many of Africa’s reserve riches – whether precious metals or hydro-carbons – still wait to be discovered and, secondly, the abundance of such land, and the nature of most of it, offers unrivalled prospects for agriculture.

This is hugely encouraging for small entrepreneurs but, in many cases, they need help to begin. The work of Farm Africa, the generosity of private donors like Warren Buffet and Bill Gates, the work of NGOs, and well-directed aid, are all addressing that problem. And the [Comprehensive African] Agricultural Development Programme (CAADP) aims to increase agricultural productivity by at least 6% per annum.

In jargon terms, the cavalry is arriving, troop by troop, and the possibility of more land under management; better water supply; more rural infrastructure and other practical improvements, is becoming more likely. This is absolutely necessary, and will enable the small rural farmer to operate in a more clement environment.

500 years ago, John Donne wrote “No man is an island entire unto itself”. Nor is any Continent.

But the growth of agriculture in Africa should not be seen in isolation. Africa is inextricably linked to worldwide growth patterns. Economic growth elsewhere will bring rising wealth to Africa – indeed is already doing so: this means better machinery for agriculture, better transport infrastructure for distribution, bigger towns in concentrated markets and the attraction of development capital.

Before the financial crisis, Africa’s five-year economic boom was challenging the conventional view of the Continent as a war-torn, poverty-stricken crisis region undeserving of investor consideration. And so it should have done: after all, many places previously regarded as risky investment options – Vietnam being an obvious example – have since earned handsome returns for investors who identified their growth prospects. There is no reason why similar growth should not be achieved in Africa.

I spoke earlier of 2050, and a world population of, perhaps, nine billion. Africa’s riches, Africa’s contribution, will be needed – and an ever-more global market will help that contribution to be made.

Is it fanciful to look forward and see an Africa with a greatly improved road network; with more sea-ports and air-ports; with a private sector mentality; with less bureaucracy; a modern tax system; and growing opportunity for agriculture?

I think not. And the history of the last fifty years tells us not. Farming for sustenance can become farming for profit. What an industrial revolution achieved for others it can – and I believe will – achieve for Africa.

And when that happens, Farm Africa – and the other pioneers of help – will see that their help was far-sighted as well as humanitarian.