Economic Research Forum (ERF)

The true size of Africa and why it matters

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The African continent is much larger than it appears on standard maps of the world. As explained in this column, first published at Le Monde, this distorted projection method has many consequences, particularly in the area of agriculture.

In a nutshell

The food and energy crises triggered by the Russian invasion of Ukraine make the issue of the real size of Africa even more salient today: several countries of the continent are facing shortages and even famines, as well as rising inflation.

The true size of Africa, including its vast amount of uncultivated arable land, should make the leaders of the continent and of the international community seize the opportunity of this crisis to make agriculture much more productive.

The true value of Africa’s leaders will be measured by their ability to come together through the African continental free trade area and concentrate on solving the continent’s food dependency.

The most commonly used world map is based on the method of projection developed in 1569 by the European cartographer, Geert de Kremer, known as Mercator. In this method, the longitudes are equally spaced, parallel vertical lines while the latitudes are parallel horizontal lines that are spaced farther apart as the distance with the equator increases.

This method tends to inflate areas in upper and lower latitudes. As a result, common world maps greatly distort the size of Africa by making it look tiny. In contrast, Canada, Greenland and Russia look huge.

The method of projection has had important implications – and outcomes – for Africa. From a historical perspective, scholars have argued that the standard projection was a political tool that contributed to the scramble for Africa, also known as the partition of Africa when Western European powers colonised the continent.

Just as making Africa look small and conquerable then, the Mercator projection makes the continent look small and irrelevant now. But from any global economic, political and demographic perspective – and indeed from any other cartographic projection – this could not be further from the case.

One element of Africa’s under-appreciated size is the under-recognised extent to which the continent is still being ‘explored’ for agricultural land and natural resources. This ‘land rush’, a surge of interest in large scale land investment that has been occurring since the food price spike in 2011 raises critical and unanswered questions about whether such a rush will serve the interests of the continent.

At the same time, exploration efforts and resource discoveries have been rising steadily over the past decades, leading to what the Association of American Petroleum Geologist (AAPG) calls an ‘oil boom’. According to the AAPG, explorers have had success after success on the continent, including in Mauritania, Mozambique, Senegal and Tanzania, but also in traditional oil exporters like Angola, Congo and Nigeria.

Again, concerns over energy security in Europe and rising energy prices have been accompanied by announcements of large investments in Africa. But it is unclear to what extent these investments will address energy security in the continent – or to what extent new energy export revenues can be of meaningful developmental value.

The food and energy crises triggered by the Russian invasion of Ukraine make the issue of the real size of Africa even more salient today. Several countries of the continent are facing shortages and even famines, including in the horn of Africa and Madagascar. Most countries are experiencing fast-rising inflation driven by food and energy products.

Considering that external factors are driving inflation, monetary policy is not an appropriate tool. That is even more important since developing countries, including those of Africa, are faced with limited transmission of monetary policy. Most countries in Africa have so far responded to the crisis by using various fiscal policy tools, including tax reduction, universal subsidies through price controls and in-kind or cash transfers.

But many African countries are either in debt distress or are on verge of becoming so. A series of crises from the Great Recession to the Covid-19 crisis and now the Ukraine crisis have contributed to the exhaustion of their fiscal and financial buffers. Many countries in the continent have successfully tapped into financial markets for the first time in the past decades.

But as the US Federal Reserve and other major central banks around the world are tightening monetary policy in the face of ramping inflation, bond spreads are rising, including for countries in the continent that have been fiscally disciplined in past decades like Ivory Coast, which has decreased its debt to gross domestic product ratio.

The true size of Africa, including its vast amount of uncultivated arable land, should make the leaders of the continent and of the international community seize the opportunity of this crisis to make agriculture much more productive. That includes by making markets work – value added per worker was about $1,300 dollars in sub-Saharan Africa against $84,000 in the United States in 2016.

The longstanding issues plaguing agriculture appear multifaceted and include access to capital, and land registries as well as infrastructure to promote market access. But one notable challenge is that Africa existing production is fragmented and has to meet ‘fragmented consumption’. To get to the bottom of that fragmentation challenge, competition issues in the distribution and transport sectors need to be addressed.

What is more is that the African continental free trade area (AfCFTA), launched uneventfully in 2021, could help make markets work for the people of Africa by regionalising competition bodies and move past domestic politics and vested interests. The true value of Africa’s leaders will be measured by their ability to come together through the AfCFTA and concentrate on solving the continent’s food dependency.

 

A version of this article was originally published by Le Monde. Read the original article.

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