A couple of billion reasons why Africa is a priority for the future

December 13, 2013

More than three years ago, I had posted on this blog the list of the 16 most populated countries in the world by then. It helped put things in perspective in today’s world, but looking ahead, another table is more useful. Here is the list of the 16 most populated countries in 2050 and 2100 according to the UN.

2010

Country

Population

(millions)

% of world population

World

6,794

 

China

1,337

19.6

India

1,180

17.3

USA

309

4.5

Indonesia

231

3.4

Brazil

193

2.8

Pakistan

169

2.5

Bangladesh

162

2.4

Nigeria

155

2.3

Russia

142

2.1

Japan

128

1.9

Mexico

108

1.6

Philippines

92

1.4

Vietnam

86

1.3

Germany

82

1.2

Ethiopia

79

1.2

Egypt

78

1.2

Top   16

4,531

66.7

2050

Country

Population

(millions)

% of world population

 

      9,551

 

India

1,620

17.0

China

1,385

14.5

Nigeria

440

4.6

USA

401

4.2

Indonesia

321

3.4

Pakistan

271

2.8

Brazil

231

2.4

Bangladesh

202

2.1

Ethiopia

188

2.0

Philippines

157

1.6

Mexico

156

1.6

RD   Congo

155

1.6

Tanzania

129

1.4

Egypt

122

1.3

Russia

121

1.3

Japan

108

1.1

 Top   16

6,007

62.9

2100

Country

Population

(millions)

% of world population

        10,854  
India

1,547

14.3

China

1,086

10.0

Nigeria

914

8.4

USA

462

4.3

Indonesia

315

2.9

Tanzania

276

2.5

Pakistan

263

2.4

DR   Congo

262

2.4

Ethiopia

243

2.2

Uganda

205

1.9

Nigeria

204

1.9

Brazil

195

1.8

Philippines

188

1.7

Bangladesh

182

1.7

Kenya

160

1.5

Mexico

140

1.3

 Top   16

6,642

61.2

Immediately, some interesting information appears. China is already reaching a plateau and it will decline later. Most of Asia will have reached its peak of population by mid-century. India’s population is going to keep growing in the coming decades and with regards to food security, the country has still lots of work ahead. However, with the growth of its middle class, the situation should improve gradually in the future. The continent that will see the strongest population growth is Africa. Between now and the end of the century, eight countries will account to over half of the world’s population increase from currently 7.2 billion to 10.9 billion, with six of these countries being on the African continent. These eight countries are Nigeria, India, Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Niger, Uganda, Ethiopia and the USA. It is worth noticing that the population of Nigeria will pass the population of the USA before mid-century. For a country the size of Texas, the challenge is huge, especially considering the current political instability. Other small countries such as Tanzania and Uganda are going have to cope with a very strong population increase.

The challenge for Africa is clear. Most of the countries with a strong population increase are poor countries that already have serious difficulties to feed themselves. African agriculture has not followed the pace of other regions in terms of productivity and yields. Many rural communities are poor and can hardly subsist. The flip side Africa having lagged in agricultural development is that it has huge potential to increase its food production. At the beginning of the current decade, the FAO estimated the area of unexploited arable land in Africa to be roughly the size of continental USA. By increasing acreage in production with higher yields, there is plenty of room to increase production volumes to sufficient levels. Food production is the not the only problem. To solve hunger, these countries must eliminate poverty. People who have enough money to buy food are not hungry. Only the poor are. And to have enough money, one needs a decent paying job. For the future of Africa, employment is really where the battle will be won or lost. Between now and the end of the century, Africa will have to create 600 million new jobs, and to get jobs, people need to have the proper education and training. They also need to be healthy. As the expectation is that most of the population will be living in cities, another challenging goal will be to build these urban centers and all the necessary infrastructure to move the goods and the people. Such megacities will also need to be food secure and urban planning will need to take food distribution and food production into account. Education, health care, construction, infrastructure, jobs, food and agriculture… This sounds like building an entire continent doesn’t it? And that is exactly what it is. Expect Africa to be a huge construction site! Action must be taken and properly phased out over the next nine decades. If the challenges are many, so are the opportunities and the benefits in the long term.

So what does it take to make this happen? The answer to this question is rather simple. The implementation and proper execution is less so. It will take money, and a lot of it. There is plenty of that, though. The Central bankers of developed countries did not have to think too long to start printing a couple of trillion dollars, emitting bonds and doing the quantitative easing as needed to save the financial sector when the system was imploding in 2008 and since then. Building Africa would not require more money than that. If there has ever been a need for Keynesian economics, the Africa of the coming decades is it! Not only the money pumped in the system would allow projects to happen, but it will be the basis to create the many jobs that will be required to build all that is needed. The challenge for Africans is to have and to provide the training required to qualify for the jobs come.

To rise from its current situation, the task is somehow comparable to rebuilding Europe after World War II. Both the Europeans and the Americans who provided financial help by then can tell the Africans what a great period of prosperity followed for them. Africa needs a Marshall plan of its own, but it also must convince the rest of the world that it will put the money at work. And that is where the second crucial component of success – or failure – resides: leadership. Africa needs strong visionary leadership with integrity that will not only make things happen, but also will keep the energies focused on a long-term effort. Another eighty-six years to complete it all before the end of the century will not be too many. Africa will have to bring forward a new generation of leaders that will follow a course that is quite different from the one many of their predecessors followed. Encouraging investors will require fighting corruption, starting with a leadership by example. Corruption is a theme that I hear regularly from businesses that would like to engage in Africa, but that feel reluctant to do so for that very reason. Endeavours may be risky, but they have the potential to be quite rewarding for those who will dare and have the patience to wait to reap the fruits. As for anything else anywhere else, there will be success stories and some failures, but that is the way the world goes. It will be important to factor in disappointments and a percentage of mistakes and failures to assess the true future return. One thing is sure: searching for a quick return is probably not the best strategy over there.

Africa is diverse. The challenges will vary per country and so will the quality of the leadership. I expect the political geography of Africa to change between now and 2100 (actually much earlier than that). Borders are inherited from the independence from the colonial power and they do not always reflect a good partition for the future. Sometimes this may happen peacefully and sometimes unfortunately not. Note that I never said it will be easy. Nonetheless, the continent must move forward and the countries must develop their economies.

Although it will not be simple, I am optimistic about future changes in Africa. In my limited dealings with young professionals from Africa, I can say that this new generation is highly motivated and keen to succeed. In my contacts, I have many bright, smart and well-educated young African professionals in the field of food and agriculture. I enjoy their energy and desire to change the course of the future. They have travelled and they know quite a bit about food production in other places. They push relentlessly to bring new dynamics and I do believe that they will make good things happen. But they will need all the help and support to have access to the right resources and knowledge to succeed.

For some reason, since I started the Food Futurist, I have always considered that Africa will be playing an important role in the future of food and agriculture. I have believed immediately in its potential and I have never been shy about it. This has sometimes created interesting situations such surprise or disbelief from my audiences and clients. I guess I was a little early with my predictions, but I have had the pleasure to hear some of them who looked at me as if I had a sunstroke who now advocate in favour of Africa’s food and agriculture potential. It just took them a year or two to come to the same conclusion. I guess the first part of my work has been done. Now, I really would like to be involved with organizations that want to build solid pragmatic market-oriented food production in Africa.

Copyright 2013 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Believing in the future

June 24, 2011

The recent economic crisis gives an example of how the perception of the future can change, and how the level of economic security affects our behavior.

While before the economic crisis, many people preferred to spend rather than save, since the economic perspectives have changed, so has the behavior. A similar behavior, but at business level, is the reluctance of companies to hire when the economic outlook is uncertain.

Readiness to act to build the future depends greatly on people’s perception of what that very word means to them. Some have such comfortable lives that they actually do not think much about the future. They consider it a given, and take the current situation for granted. They have not much incentive to change. They might be in for a surprise someday, though. On the opposite end of this, there are those who have no expectation of the future. For them, life is so insecure because of famine, disease or violence, that all that matters is the here and now. Thinking ahead is almost impossible, and all that matters is the immediate. The future is irrelevant.

For those who live between these two extremes, the goal is to see life conditions improve. However, how this can be achieved, and whether it seems realistic depends greatly on the resources available.

Although many areas of the food and agriculture value chain need to be improved and can be improved, it is important to notice how much resistance many food security plans are facing during their execution. Obviously not all participants agree on the objectives and on the steps to follow. This is especially important in developing countries where  many problems affect food security, such as limited financial resources, limited water availability, post-harvest losses or difficult access to market to name a few.

To get people to believe in “the” future, the first step is to connect to their sense of how far the future is. When you are 20 in a country where the life expectancy is 80, thinking about the future is quite normal, and the life expectancy gives an indication of the period that the privileged ones have in mind. In regions where life prospects are dire, thinking even a couple of years ahead will probably be irrelevant to many. When presenting a vision of the future, one must consider this way of thinking. The acceptance and the commitment to implement actions will depend largely on whether the timeline is perceived as reasonable. People are more inclined to participate when they think that they will be able to see the results in their lifetime.

On the way to the future, actions are always more convincing than words. Positive results need to appear soon. Otherwise, the momentum in favor of the promised changes might slow down. This is why a good strategy is to start with the simplest and the easiest projects. They will deliver results faster. As success breeds success, they will generate more enthusiasm for the more difficult projects that require more time and more resources to be completed. This approach is a good way to build credibility and defuse criticism. Another advantage is that the participants will become more aware of what they can achieve as they achieve success. This gain in confidence will boost the morale to pursue with the further improvements. Often, this creates very healthy bottom-up dynamics that generates newer ideas on how to achieve the goals better and faster, or even exceed them.

Clearly, increasing confidence requires actions at many different levels. In the case of food security, the scope needs to go beyond agricultural development alone. Producing more food will not feed people if the hungry ones still do not make enough money to pay for food. Agriculture is only one of the economic sectors, and it will not produce miracles if it is not included in a more ambitious and broader goal.

Of all activities carried out to improve food security, I find the Chinese policies rather interesting. They are a long-term oriented culture. They are very patient and persistent, as many episodes of their history demonstrate. Their development activities in Africa are comprehensive. Next to all their work to develop agricultural production, they also invest heavily in the development of small businesses. They are working to develop the local economy beyond simply food production. Possibly, they experience of the last 30 years in developing the economy in China explains their approach. They know that social stability depends on people having at least the bare necessities. In the 1990s, I remember when we, in Europe, started to realize that China’s goal was to feed its people first. Imports of agricultural commodities into China started to increase. In particular, their demand for wheat and for what Europeans considered animal by-products was strongly on the rise. They seem to have a similar approach with Africa. They understand that their food supply will be more secure if the countries where they invest are economically and socially stable. It is worth noting that China invests more money in Africa than all G8 countries together do. It would appear that, to follow through with these policies, not having elections every few years allows them to execute a long-term vision without having to sacrifice it through short-term distraction.

On the other end of the spectrum, in terms of making people lose faith in the future, I could mention Libyan land purchases in Mali. The farmers, who had been working the land for themselves, although the land did not belong to them, have received notice that they will have to leave at the end of this year. This is exactly the kind of practice that could lead a country into civil war.

Businesses and non-profits that are active to develop food production need to take into account the same aspects that increase confidence in the execution of their plans. The owners, shareholders and fund providers must take a long-term approach to succeed. In such projects, the day-to-day share price on the stock exchange is not relevant. Such projects are long-term investments that will deliver a return only after many years. Among the most important investments, I would give a special mention to health and education. Without them, people can simply not get any fulfilling occupation, and economic development will be stuck in low gear.

At my modest level, I once inherited a project to get a fish processing plant operational. This project was a taking place in one of British Columbia’s Central Coast First Nations communities, which was plagued by a staggering 80% unemployment rate. Apart from the fact that there had been no budget allocated, I faced another problem. The local Economic Development Corporation in charge of their end of the project was never carrying out what they were supposed to do. Being my old little me, I never accepted this situation as a reality, and I made sure that all parties would do what they agreed to do. Only after a couple of years did I get the explanation for their dragging their feet. Many projects had taken place in this community before, but they all failed. The locals had concluded that no project would ever succeed, and they were not adamant to invest much in the future. The initial agreement had been signed between the salmon farming company and the leaders of the community, but time was necessary to get the lower levels of the village to be convinced. At some point in time, I was told that if it had not been for my indestructible faith in the project’s success, my persistence and my sometimes quasi-obnoxious insistence, this project would have had the same fate as the other previous ones. I had to deal with many heated discussions, a small social upheaval and death threats, but I quite alive to say proudly that, 11 years after I started it, the plant still is operational today, for the benefit of the community and its residents!

Long-term vision, empathy, sharing the value, strong leadership (even some dose of benevolent dictatorship) are all critical elements to make developing nations believe in the future.

Copyright 2011 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Of food riots and economic hardship

January 31, 2011

The riots in North Africa are getting a lot of coverage. This is good, because the problems in this region have been ignored for a long time. In 1987, I had bought a book “L’Europe Submergée – Sud-Nord dans 30 ans” by the late French economist Alfred Sauvy, the man who created the term Third World. His book was a description of the demographic differences between Europe and the nations from the South, and of the likely consequences. His prediction was by then that within 30 to 40 years, Europe would see a flow of immigration from the other side of the Mediterranean Sea that would replace the original European population. He also saw in this migration a great opportunity in terms of economic renewal for Europe. He certainly would have deserved the title of futurist!

When I wrote Future Harvests, I dedicated a chapter on the changing demographics. It clearly appeared to me that he was right, and that the evolution of the population numbers between the different regions of the world will influence decisions about food production, food supply, and economies altogether. In Future Harvests, I indicate in which regions I think tensions would arise. The Arab world was number one on my list. Here is the map of the median age per country. The median age of a country is the age of half its population. Most of Arab countries have half their populations under 25. And what to think of Sub-Saharan Africa where that age is lower than 20? This is in sharp contrast with Western countries where almost half the population is older than 40. It was really striking to see the pictures of Tunisian rioters: there were teenagers. With a chronic unemployment, especially with the youth, reaching levels of 25%, and many people living on a pittance, riots erupting and governments being toppled are no surprises. This situation has been going on for a few decades. A new generation of people who see little hope and future is simply sending a message. Change must come or change will come.

In the news, everything is mixed together and it may appear a little difficult to understand what causes Arab countries to flare up like this. Everyone speculates which country will be next. Of course, food is mentioned as one of the many causes, and I can read all sorts of opinions about that. From what I understand, the riots in Tunisia were caused by the arrest of a food street vendor for not having the proper license, which immediately cut his meagre source of income. After the success of the Tunisian upheaval, it is not surprising to see neighbouring  countries with a similar demographic and similar dire economic situation following a similar path. Does this mean that there will be riots over the entire Arab world? Probably not all at once. It might not be successful everywhere, either. Other rulers in the region will make some moves, even symbolic ones, to defuse potential tensions. Both the Tunisian and Egyptian rulers are doing their best to defuse the tensions, and by resigning if this is what it will take to avoid complete chaos. The lesson is hard for Arab countries and they are now more aware than ever of the dangerous situation they are in. This is also a loud warning to the rich nations. However, at the Davos conference, the elite were not even aware of what was going on. Eventually, they heard it, and paid attention. Stock markets dropped for one day only as unrest was spreading in Egypt. Interestingly enough, markets were up on the days that a bomb exploded in Moscow’s airport and when Japan’s economic rating was downgraded by S&P. Certain things matter more than others. Europe must now realize that unless it helps its southern neighbours solve the problem, they are going to become a part of it. Yet, European countries seem to have trouble taking some clear position on the events. North Africa, just like the rest of Africa needs economic development. The people of these countries need to regain hope in the future. The generation that comes of age to leave the parents’ home and start, and support, their own families must see reasons why it will be possible for them. At this juncture, they doubt that they will be able to do so.

In Future Harvests, I mention two regions with a demographic time bomb waiting for a food security problem to explode. One is the area between Russia and the former Central Asian Soviet republics, extended to Iran and Pakistan. The other one is the border between Mexico and the USA. Mexico is disintegrating and law and order are fading away. Both these regions are going to have to work together to find strategies to ensure stability. This probably will not happen without serious clashes.

Many of the countries where booming demographics, poor economic situation and precarious food security are the normal state of affairs need a 21st century Marshall Plan. As I have presented in previous articles, the potential for feeding the world population is there, but the main cause of hunger is the lack of affordability of food. In 2008, there were food riots, but there was no real food shortage. The main problem was that the populations could not pay for it because the price had skyrocketed, especially the price of basic food staples such as rice, wheat and corn. This time, although according to the FAO, food prices are even higher than in 2008, we have not seen the same kind of riots. A reason for this difference may have been the fact that retail prices of food staples remained contained. So far.

Some sort of Marshall Plan is a necessity. Development and stability is in the interest of rich countries, just as much as it is for developing countries. Europe, Russia and the USA cannot thrive with countries on the verge of complete collapse at their borders. If there has ever been a good investment, this would be it. It is interesting to look at the example of China. This hard-core communist country was on the verge of economic disaster and famine, until they decided to put the doctrine on the side, and open their doors to foreign investments. From the moment that China decided to feed its people, things changed. For the communist government, this was the only way to stay in power. A billion hungry, and angry, people are impossible to keep under control. For the capitalist “Satan”, it was convenient to present the Chinese “opening” as a victory of the aspiring capitalism, but mostly it was the greatest opportunity ever to reduce labour costs of consumer goods and boost corporate profits. Investing in China was not exactly like the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe, but the amount of money that flowed into the country helped turn around a bad situation into what soon will be the world’s first economy. While the middle class in Europe is stagnating at best, if not actually disappearing, China has grown its middle class to 300 million people (the whole US population) and it aims at increasing the number to 850 million by 2030. China is still (officially) a communist country with no elections, but that does not seem to bother too many people. Developing nations need money to flow into their economies to create jobs.

Many people are asking whether we will see food riots again. Unfortunately, the answer is yes. Although there is much political talk about food prices and risks of riots, nothing is really done to prevent it from happening. It does not look like there is much political will to make the necessary reform to prevent extreme tensions. Most world forums of all sorts seem to be more of an opportunity for the wealthy and powerful to hobnob than a place where actual decisions are made. The WTO Doha Round, which if well completed can bring many solutions, takes for ever to come to a conclusion. It looks like reason and leadership are not prevailing much right now. It is highly likely that the world, and mostly the rich nations, will understand the message and act only when they will feel that their position is in danger, too. Food riots will come as soon as food affordability drops under an acceptable level of suffering. Of course, Asia, Latin America and Arab countries are the most likely candidates for such unrest, but rich countries are not immune to that, either. Especially the USA is more vulnerable that many may think. In 2009, the USDA estimate of households that do not have enough money to feed themselves was of 14.6%. Although the economy seems to have stabilized, it has not recovered yet. Moreover, the housing situation in the US is far from stabilized. Many Americans have been able to keep consuming somehow because they simply stopped paying their mortgages and could stay in their homes. The number of mortgage delinquencies is so high that banks cannot handle all the cases. Actually, most cases have been postponed, but one day some decisions will have to be made. If the banks played by the book and foreclosed all houses, the owners of which cannot pay the mortgages, it would result in an incredibly high number of homeless broke people. The banks would have to report serious losses. Today a report indicated that 11% of all American homes are empty. More foreclosures will increase this number further. How will these people manage to eat by then? Banks can decide to settle according to individual situations. There will be less broke homeless coming on the streets and the banks will have fewer losses. In a previous article, I had mentioned the risk of a decreasing dollar, especially the risk of inflation as financial markets play the commodities only to hedge against the loss of value of the dollar. Inflation in an economy that is stagnating will reduce the affordability of food for the less wealthy. Unemployment is staying rather high and I have not seen any report from anyone presenting a situation in which employment would increase in significant numbers any time soon. In 2008, Gerald Celente, a trend forecaster who predicted the 1987 stock market crash and the fall of the former Soviet Union, told that by 2012, America would have food riots, a tax rebellion, and even a revolution. At first, I was sceptical, but I am starting to wonder if he might be right. After all, during the food price hike of 2008, Americans were hoarding goods from the supermarkets.

The food riots to come will finally force government to intervene and do what they are supposed to do, which is to ensure the stability and the viability of the society by setting the proper rules for the game. Especially, proper regulation on commodities markets and corporate near-monopolies will become crucial for social stability. The only unknown is the cost of our procrastination.

Copyright 2011 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Investing in agriculture requires thorough research

January 13, 2011

Since the price hike of food and other commodities in 2008, agriculture is one of the hot topics in the investment community. This is also fuelled by the perception that the world might face a food crisis. For those looking at investing in the food sector, there are many possibilities, but in this sector as in many other investment types, caution is required. The investment community is a pool of sharks, and the name of the game is to sell at a profit. Beware of the salesperson!

According to Jim Rogers, a famous investor and former partner of George Soros, farmers will be the ones driving Maseratis in the future. He believes firmly that, in the future, those who actually produce the commodities, instead of brokers, will make fortunes. It is a very interesting point of view, although history tends to show that the power in food value chains is in both ends of the chain: genetics and marketing to consumers. Becoming a farmer is not an investment. It is a job, and a busy one. Farmers need to generate cash on a regular basis to provide for their families and keep the farm in business. Land is not liquid. Investing is about reaping the profit when selling at a higher valuation.

For those interested in owning farmland, there are possibilities to buy large acreage in many countries. A recent article published in CNBC presents some strategies.  Large private investors seem interested in Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Canada. Prices of farmland have been firming up in the US. There are people advertising for Brazilian farmland who promise you a yearly guaranteed (not clear how, though) of 12%. In the former communist Eastern European countries, many farms are for sale. Net importing countries such as China, India and Arab countries choose to invest and develop farmland in Africa. For investors with a strong stomach, Africa may be a place of choice. The continent is pretty much for sale. However, the ownership of the land is not always very clear and the rules of engagements may vary. If you only wish to lease land, you might be interested in Ethiopia: the country is offering 100-year leases for $1 per acre. Although some offers may seem irresistible, buying farmland or a farm is a complex endeavour. Many factors weigh and things may not be as they seem. What is the quality of the soils? How is the climate, and in particular are there risks of floods or drought?  Is there proper access to water? What are the local regulations in the country where you are thinking of buying? How much bureaucracy should you expect? Who are the suppliers, and how they deal with their customers? Is there access to quality supplies? What are the banking facilities and what type of credit can you get? How are the infrastructures for storage and logistics? What access to markets do farmers have, and how is the marketing chain organized? Today’s situation may not be a good predictor of the future, and problems may loom ahead, as Jason Henderson, vice president and Omaha Branch executive of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City told in an interview to Agri-pulse.

If farming or owning farmland is not your thing, there is always the possibility to invest in commodities with futures contracts. Instead of buying the hard commodity, which would take quite some space in your garage, you just do the same but on paper only. This is a risky business though and it should be left to the pros. Originally, futures had been introduced to give farmers the possibility to fix in advance the selling price for their crops, instead of waiting for the spot market at harvest time. Futures contracts have been taken over by the Wall Street geniuses who brought us the Great Recession. Also realize that nowadays the future contracts prices reflect the supply and demand situation of paper contracts, not of the actual physical market. The result is that futures markets are all about speculation and most transactions are made with borrowed money. Speculation may be about the weather, planted acreage, expected yields or plant diseases. Any news is cause for rumours and markets may change direction without warning. If agricultural commodities interest you, you may prefer to invest in funds that include these commodities, and therefore offer a lower risk. Another possibility to get money at work in the agriculture and food sectors is by buying shares of companies involved in agricultural value chains. For instance, when commodity prices increase strongly, the logical (?) thinking of stock investors is that the next food crisis is ahead and that the world is about to run short of food, which will stimulate farmers to plant more and therefore require more inputs. Especially shares of fertilizer suppliers always shoot up in such situations, all the more so as there are just a few of them. This gives them a strong bargaining position, and they pass on sharp price increases to the farmers… which is why the margins of farmers usually suffer after a year of high commodity prices. In the agricultural sector, it is important to remember what I said about which links in the chain have the strongest position, as this will affect their bargaining position and their ability to get, or to keep, the added value. Weak links will always underperform, while the stronger ones will outperform compared with the average of the sector, that is for as long as these companies are managed properly. Investing in stocks always require a thorough financial analysis, as well as a good understanding of the quality of the management. How does the future look like for a particular company? Does it have a sustainable competitive advantage? How does the future look like for the sector of activity of this company? What is the track record of performance? Does it depend on world market prices or is it more predictable than that? How is the valuation of the company?

Another type of investment that is gathering momentum in the agri-food business is new technologies start-ups. With worries about the future of oil, and especially oil prices, and the challenge of providing enough water to produce crops, many new technologies try to find their way to market. The sector of new technologies attracts many investors, probably because it seems reminiscent of what happened in the tech sector, therefore giving hopes of high return. I come across such ventures regularly, and every time I hear enthusiastic stories from the owner or from the venture capitalists involved. In many cases, the story is about how this new technology is going to revolutionize the way food is produced, or even it will be the solution to hunger. Returns on investments always sound amazing, making one wonder why this has not been on the market for some time already. For such projects, too, it is essential to do the proper research on the claims that the owners and financiers are making. In many cases, I find difficult to get the proper background to support the financial results that they claim. In even more cases, I do not see any real thorough market research, and instead of explaining in which niche they will operate, the market story is about macroeconomics. The macroeconomics may be true, but except for the unlikely event that the particular technology would indeed take over the world within a few years, they are not a relevant description of the actual market possibilities within the foreseeable future. Of course, there are also projects that have strong cases, but they are a minority.

In all cases, a number of simple rules can save you from a very painful experience.

  • Do not invest in something you do not understand.
  • Do not mind hypes and tips.
  • Take all the necessary time to do your research, and do it thoroughly.
  • When in doubt, do not invest.
  • Ask as many questions as possible. When investing, information is power, and lack of information is weakness.
  • Ask independent third parties, and never ask advice from someone who has a vested interest in your transaction.
  • Buy low, sell high.
  • If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is exactly that.
  • Investing is not mandatory, and if you miss an opportunity, there will be other bargains later again.

Copyright 2011 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Hunger is about more than just food production

December 4, 2010

Everyone who works in agriculture and food knows that there are about one billion people on Earth suffering from hunger. The temptation to think that the cause is a lack of food production is great, but it does not reflect reality. Quite a few serious organizations and personalities claim that one Earth is not enough to feed nine billion people by 2050. Some claim that we would need two Earths. Others even go as far as mentioning the need for three, and even four, of our blue planet.

There are two possibilities with such statements.

If they are true, then humanity has a problem, because there is only one Earth, and we will not get a second one. In such a case, the only way for supply and demand to get in balance is a reduction of the world population. This could happen through famine, disease and/or wars. Since in such a scenario there is a maximum to the world population, once this number is reached, there must be a constant elimination of the couple of billion people too many, through one of the means just mentioned. This is not a particularly happy thought.

On the other hand, if such statements are erroneous, there is hope to feed the increasing world population with one Earth.

Then, is one planet enough or not? Simple math should help finding the answer. If we need two Earths to feed nine billion, one planet would only feed 4.5 billion people. Currently, the world population is around seven billion, out of which one billion is hungry. Conclusion is that we currently can feed about six billion people. We are not doing that bad. Is it possible to find ways of feeding three more billion on this Earth? From the simple math above, it is clear that those who claim that we need three Earths or more are wrong.

Out of the six billion who do not suffer hunger, it is estimated that one billion is overweight, a part of which, mostly in the USA, is obese. They clearly ingest more calories than they need. Purely theoretically, if those were to share the excess food they consume with the ones who have too little, the billion hungry people would have about enough. This means that today there is already enough food available to feed seven billion people.

Another interesting factor is waste. According to the FAO, about 40% of all the food produced is lost and wasted. In rich countries, most of the waste takes place at supermarkets, restaurants and households level. People simply throw away food. In developing countries, the waste takes place mostly post-harvest. The food does not even reach the market. The food is spoiled because of a lack of proper storage facilities and logistics. The food ends up rotting, contaminated with mould or is eaten by vermin. To fix the problem, the FAO estimates the cost to improve infrastructure at US$ 80 billion. This is less than the amount the EU just made available to bail out Ireland. What to say of the US$ 3.3 trillion that the US Federal Reserve lent to banks to alleviate the financial crisis? Of course, it will be impossible to achieve an absolute zero waste, but if we were to achieve 10%, this will feed many people. I have heard the statement that if post-harvest losses were eliminated in India, the country would be fully food secure. Per 100 tons of production, 40% wastage means that only 60 tons are available for consumers. By reducing waste from 40% down to 10%, there would be 90 tons available. This represents an increase of food available by 50%! Since we could already feed seven billion with the 40% waste, reducing wastage to 10% would allow feeding 10.5 billion people.

There are also many debates about whether we should eat meat or not. The nutritional need for protein is easily covered with 30 kg of meat per capita per year. I had shown in an earlier article that if Western consumers were consuming just what they need instead of eating superfluous volumes (very tasty and enjoyable, though), it would free meat to feed 1.4 billion people the yearly individual 30 kg. In China, the average meat consumption is already up to 50 kg per capita per year. The consumption is very unevenly distributed, but this is the average. Cutting 20 kg per capita over a population of 1.5 billion would free meat for the nutritional needs of an additional one billion people.

The other area of potential is Africa. The FAO estimates that the area of arable land that is not exploited is about 700 million hectares. This is about the size of Australia. To simplify and get an idea of the potential, we can calculate what it means in wheat equivalent. With the assumption that wheat yields would be the same as the current African average, a low 1.5 tons per hectare, this adds up to 1.05 billion tons of wheat. Since a person needs about one million calories per year, and there are about 3,000 calories in a kg of wheat, one ton of wheat can feed three people, the 1.05 billion tons of wheat can feed more than 3 billion people. Normally, there would a crop rotation of at least two harvests per hectare. With proper investment and financing, farms should be able to reach easily the US average of 3 tons of wheat per hectare. Clearly, this performance could be achieved with traditional techniques and good quality seeds. This is not even about high-tech or GMOs. This tremendous potential of Africa is why China, India and Arab countries are very active developing farming there. They did the math. This scenario also shows that Africa can easily become a strong net exporter of food. In this case, the world map of food looks very different. Without Africa being able to produce large amount of foods, the prospects for food security in Asia and the Middle East are a bit bleak. They can depend only on Western Europe, Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, North and South America, and with Australia to a lesser extent. With Africa as a net food exporter, the world map looks a lot more balanced, East-West as well as North-South. Sea routes from Africa with the Arabic Peninsula, the Persian Gulf, and farther away with India and China create a much safer feeling of food security for the countries in those regions. For Africa itself, it may change the relations between Sub-Saharan country and the Maghreb countries. This in turns changes the type of relationship that the Maghreb may have with Europe, by creating more economic activities to the South. Africa’s success –or failure- will affect the whole world.

With the above, everyone can develop further assumptions, but these calculations show that this one Earth can produce enough food to cover the needs of between 12 and 15 billion people. It almost sounds impossible to believe, yet these numbers are not even ambitious. I have not even taken into account that in 2009, 25% of the corn produced in the USA was destined to feed cars, not people, via ethanol production, and that number is expected to grow to about one-third for 2010. The potential is even higher when one considers that a large part of the US corn goes into soft drinks, while it could be used to produce tortillas, with a side glass of water, a much healthier alternative.

That said, if the potential for food production supply looks adequate, actually producing it may not be as easy. The human factor, especially through politics and leadership, will be crucial to succeed.

One would ask why there is hunger if we can produce so much food. The answer is simple. Hunger is not just about food production, it is about poverty. People are hungry because they do not have money to buy food. They do not have money because they do not earn enough, as they have low paying jobs or simply no jobs at all. By developing the economy in these regions, people would get better wages. They could afford more food. The demand would drive the development of food production. Agricultural development would then be a normal and natural activity. Trying to develop agriculture if the locals cannot buy the food cannot work. Recently the FAO estimated that two-thirds of the world’s malnourished live in only seven countries: China, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Ethiopia and Congo. These are countries where most of the population is poor, and most of which lives in rural areas. The other proof that hunger is not only a consequence of low food self-sufficiency can be found in two agricultural exports behemoths: Brazil and the USA. In the latter, a recent survey carried out by Hormel Foods, the deli producer, shows that 28% of Americans struggle to get enough money to buy food, or they know someone who struggles. Last year, the USDA had estimated at 14.6% the percentage of US households that do not have enough food on the table. Food will find the money and vice-versa. If Bill Gates decided to move to the poorest and most food insecure place in the world, and would fancy a lobster, I am sure that someone would manage to find him one and deliver it within reasonable short notice.

My book, Future Harvests, investigates the possible scenarios to increase food supply and meet the demand at the horizon 2050.

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Helping farmers produce better

November 26, 2010

Meeting food demand depends for a large part on the ability of farmers to produce adequate quantities of the food products of the right quality. To achieve such an objective, farmers depend on their business partners. To feed an increasing world population, helping farmers succeed is not an option; it is a necessity.

There is no argument against producing better. A market-driven and more efficient production reduces the amount of waste, and it increases the amount of food available for consumers. It reduces the impact on the environment and it actually reduces the cost of production. However, it is important to realize that actions to produce better often are investments, as the effect is not always immediate.

From a value chain point of view, efficient production starts with high-quality ingredients. If the world wants farmers to produce higher volumes, they must have access to good genetics. Seeds that have the potential to deliver high yields, or farm animals that can produce and grow fast, while using feed and water efficiently, are an absolute necessity. Genetics and agriculture must also take genetic diversity and sustainability into account, but with poor genetics, farmers will not be able to meet food demand, and they will not be financially viable for the long-term. Vision and proper strategy are the elements to deal with this dilemma.

Farming inputs, such fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and animal feed, must help plants, and farm animals, to express as much of their genetic potential as possible. Suppliers can play a very important role in helping farmers use the proper products in the right amounts, in the right place, and at the right time. The same principle applies for food processors and distributors. It is their role to help farmers deliver what the market needs when it needs it. They must encourage this by rewarding financially the farmers who do things right. This is in the interest of all the parties involved. Farmers make more money with their products. Processors get products that are more efficient to process, thus saving on costs. Distributors gain market share because they offer the right product to their customers, thus increasing customer satisfaction, appeal and loyalty. The advantage of doing things right is that it becomes more difficult for business partners to switch to a competitor. By being the best partner in business, the need for complicated contractual and legal agreements becomes a little less relevant. It is about loyalty and mutual security.

To achieve this kind of ideal situation requires a lot of effort, commitment and communication. Market needs must be translated in clear product specifications. The knowledge on how to be able to meet the required standards needs the proper channels to be transferred to farmers. Access to information has become much easier with the development of communication tools such as Internet and cell phones. Smart phones are helping further, and now farmers, anywhere in the world, have much faster access to market and technical information than by the past. This helps them make faster and better decisions. However, better technologies and better communication tools are not enough. Extension services are crucial. In my book, Future Harvests, several examples show how positive this is for food production. One is the policy of the Ugandan government that resulted in a boom in rice production, making the country a net exporter of rice. The second example is about the extension services of a food corporation, McCain Foods, in India, that helped farmers produce a better quality of potatoes, meeting market requirements, and earning substantially more this way. Another illustration of the positive effect of knowledge transfer is about the farming leader in Burkina Faso who helped increase food production with simple techniques, and stopped the exodus of population. Proper education and on-going training is part of the food production of the future. The human factor in knowledge transfer is as important as ever. Only people can know what the specific situation of a farmer is. Knowing the farmer is the best way to help them set up plans and strategies to improve their technical and financial performance. A farmer being independent business owners, their main concern is to generate enough revenue to stay in business, and to offer a decent standard of living and a secure future for their families. Helping them in these objectives is the way to get their attention and loyalty. Extension services need to offer the most effective solutions by taking into account the level of skills of the farmers, as well as their financial situation. Some farmers can afford and use high-tech solutions easily. Others may have money, but lack the skills to use certain techniques or technologies. Others may be technically savvy, but may lack the money. Extension service people are the ones who can help farmers make the best choices. They also must assist farmers to get the proper financing if this is the limiting factor, for as long as the money would used to deliver the proper return.

As Cicero stated, “The sinews of war are… endless money”. This tends to be overlooked by many who talk about increasing food production. If farmers do not have access to enough money to be able to produce the food the world needs, they simply will not. Developing agriculture requires serious investments, either from individuals or from governments. Asian and Arab countries know this and this is why they spent massive amounts of money in African and Asian countries, and even in Brazil and Argentina. If farmers cannot buy the basics to produce efficiently, they will have poor harvests. If farmers cannot be profitable, they will stop farming. This is important to realize that being a farmer must be attractive financially, too, if we want to motivate the next generation to be in agriculture. Money is important, but just for food production, more is not necessarily better. To get good results, we must ensure to have the right amount of money at the right time at the right place for the right purpose. The money must be aimed at producing for the market. Financing agriculture is about meeting food demand, not to produce blindly. Just like there is a need for efficient market-driven precision agriculture, the future of agriculture financing must evolve to efficient food-market-driven precision financing.

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


The danger of a weakening US dollar

November 1, 2010

The global economic situation is still fragile, and one of the symptoms is the nervousness about currencies. All it takes is a rumor to see a particular currency drop within minutes. The actions taken by central banks during the financial crisis have consequences. The amount of debt and the ability, or inability, of individual countries to manage the situation will influence the relative strengths of all currencies.

One currency has a special status. Because of the economic and political influence of the USA since World War II, the US dollar is the currency for most commodities. This special status also influences the actions of financial markets. Since the stock market plunge of October 2008, investors have become cautious. The value of stocks and commodities does not follow fundamentals anymore. A lot of cash has left the markets and, more than before, the active players in the market place their bets for short-term returns. Most transactions are computer-generated. Software programmers have developed algorithms that allow computers to make transactions based on technical analysis within a millisecond. This maybe a technological beauty, but such programs do not analyze data. They act mechanically, in a very sophisticated manner of course, but mechanically nonetheless. When it would have taken half an hour for traders to panic, the computer can now deliver the same result in less time than it takes to blink. When you add to this that investors, and especially speculators, borrow large sums of money to play with derivatives instead of doing so with the actual assets, the consequences for the real economy may be rather high.

Considering the amount of debt that the Federal Reserve Bank has issued, also known as the amount of money they printed, the burden for both taxpayers and the American economy is heavy, and will remain that way for a long time. The bank crisis is not over. Unpaid mortgages and foreclosures will keep on weighing on the health of the financial sector for quite some time.

The low interest rate may help the American economy to some extent, but the key for a true economic recovery will be job creation. So far, the unemployment situation does not seem to present much improvement anytime soon. To consume, Americans need to make money. With the tightening of credit conditions, they now have started to save money again, instead of spending it at the mall. Before the crisis, on average, Americans were spending 105% of their income, thanks to credit cards and loans based on their theoretical home equity, which supposedly would only go up. Retail accounted for 70% of the GDP. Clearly, this model will not come back. All of the above explains why the US dollar will weaken over the long-term. To alleviate this trend, the USA should increase interest rates, but in the current situation this probably would stop the recovery. The USA are somehow stuck.

Lately, it looks like most of the trends in stocks and commodities prices are linked to the relative strength or weakness of the US dollar. Commodities have become currencies. When the US dollar drops, the price of stocks and commodities goes up, and vice-versa when the currency drops. The logic behind this is simple. Investors are interested in protecting the value of their capital. Instead of owning actual dollars, they prefer to own assets. This is why the demand for materials, oil and agricultural commodities is firm. By switching from cash to finite resources, investors want to ensure that they will, at the very least, be protected from the erosion of the currency. Most of the demand is not for the real commodities, though, but for futures contracts. By borrowing money, they can buy even more of such investment vehicles than they normally would, or should. The higher demand for commodities results in an increasing price, in US dollars that is. Since they buy as the US dollar weakens, they will get more dollars back when they sell, although with the potential depreciation, this might not be an actual profit, but at least it is not a loss.

What may be the consequences for food prices? We have had a flavor of what a run on commodities can do in 2008. This time, the level of leverage will be lower than by then, because investors will not be able to access loans as much and as easily as they could prior to the financial crisis. Nonetheless, increased demand for oil futures contracts together with an increased demand for agricultural commodities futures contracts will result in food inflation. Ironically, the most vulnerable country for this are the USA themselves, because the price inflation will be in US dollars, and that is the only currency that they have. Food inflation will put more stress on the income of Americans, and depending on the level of inflation, this can bring the country back into a recession. Considering the importance of the US economy, the whole world would suffer the consequences.

Food inflation will hit globally, because the demand on paper will be higher than the physical demand, and because, the focus will be in the price expressed in US dollars only. The exchange rate between other currencies with the US dollar will not be taken into account immediately. This will happen when consumers start to offer enough resistance. The resistance can be less consumption of consumer goods in rich countries, but it can be riots and violence in poor countries. Although food inflation has not hit consumers too much, yet, the high price of animal feed ingredients is already a concern for companies involved in animal productions. Processors will face a dilemma between a decrease of margins and the need to fill their plants at full capacity to keep costs down. Their margins and the farmers’ margins will be under pressure, because the retailers will resist price increases as long as they can. Another area of margin pressure for farmers will come from the price of inputs, fertilizers in particular. If the rumor, based on paper contracts, turns into the idea that demand for agricultural production is really increasing sharply, suppliers will hike their prices as soon as they can. If farmers get higher prices for their products, they also will pay much more for their inputs.

Reactions to food inflation will be the strongest in Asia. The situation is already sensitive, and the share of food in the household budgets is still relatively high, especially compared with Western countries. For many people, food is already difficult to afford. The situation is such that the Indian government is considering offering subsidized grains to 75% of the population. This represents about 800 million people. This is roughly the combined population of the EU, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand together!

What happens with currencies, stocks and commodities exchange markets will have direct as well as indirect consequences. We all need to follow the developments, because we all will feel the consequences in our wallets, eventually.

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.