African farmers find inspiration, and maybe machinery, in Midwest

Trade meeting
A dozen farmers and business owners from Africa met with farm equipment company officials in Fargo, N.D., on Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013. One of the delegates says American technology will help Africans "revolutionize agriculture and provide food security for the continent."
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

A dozen African farmers and business owners are meeting with farm equipment suppliers in Fargo, N.D., to study technology that would help them produce more soybeans and corn.

The meetings could also prove helpful to farm machinery manufacturers in the United States who see an opportunity to tap a growing market.

A farm in the Red River Valley, with its massive tractors and combines, is very different from the average farm in Uganda, where a small number of peasant farmers use hoes.

Ugandan farmer Patrick Bitature sees the American Midwest as a model for the future of farming in his country, especially now that he sees the effects of climate change, such as persistent drought.

"We have been in a slumber for way too long, and with global warming now the reality has begun to hit hard," he said. "We have to change what we're doing if we are going to get different results."

The African farmers are in the United States on a trade mission organized by the U.S. Trade and Development Agency.

Ken Peoples, a consultant who organizes trade missions for the agency, said that over the next few decades most of the world's new food production will occur in Africa, which has the most undeveloped farmland of any continent.

"During the next 25 to 30 years, that will be the place where new acres are providing food for this growing world population," Peoples said. "So I think in terms of early pioneering markets, this is the largest one on the earth."

But the African continent also is a rich source of potential customers, he said.

"I keep telling every U.S. company it will take two or three years before they end up making a purchase, but if they nurture that connection they will have a customer for life," he said.

European, Chinese and South American companies also are competing for African markets. But the African farmers say they want U.S. technology because they think it's the best in the world.

"From what I've seen in the USA, I say, 'Wow.' I wish I could open my eyes and it is there in Africa," said Yaw Adu Poku, who processes soybeans and corn for about 3,000 small farmers in Ghana.

"I went to these factories that do irrigated equipment, and all my prayer was that when do I see this on the land back home," he said. "Because immediately I saw dollars clicking, and I saw creation of employment and I saw satisfaction on the weatherbeaten faces of the farmers."

Poku might get his wish and bring irrigation to farmers in Ghana, but it won't be easy. Most banks in Africa will not lend money to farmers.

Trade officials say African banks will lend the money for equipment only if American banks guarantee the loans.

The logistics of shipping big tractors and dealing with government regulations can also be a challenge. But Midwest agribusinesses see a potential big market, particularly for used equipment. There is an oversupply of used tractors and farm implements in the United States, where farmers have done well in recent years.

Stacy Anthony, who manages export sales for Brandt Holdings, a Fargo company that runs 25 John Deere equipment dealerships in five Midwestern states, sees a lot of opportunity to ship used equipment to Africa. Brandt Holdings already exports used equipment to 18 countries.

"I would say it's very probable that we could see sales continue to grow to Africa over the next two or three years by 15 to 20 percent," Anthony said. "The demand and the need is there and definitely the supply is here on this side. So all of the workings are in place to make that happen."

The African delegation will spend Friday touring farm equipment factories in Fargo. On Monday they will visit equipment manufacturers in Jackson, Minn.; Ames, Iowa; and Omaha, Neb.

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