Bread and stones: Africa–Australia opportunities
5 Sep 2013|

A field worker at the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR) at Kulumsa, Ethiopia.I’ve just returned from Perth where I participated in two events. The first was a forum run jointly by the Africa Australia Research Forum at Murdoch University and the Crawford Fund (an organisation focused on international agricultural research assistance), on the theme Mining, agriculture and development: bread from stones?. The second was the tenth Africa DownUnder mining conference. I spoke on the outcomes of the recent ASPI–Brenthurst Foundation’s Aus-Africa Dialogue.

Recent comments by Peter Jennings and Russell Trood resonated with me. Both called for a broader international focus in Australia’s foreign policy. Peter commented that it was ‘misguided’ to think that our relations with major Asian countries, as highlighted in the Asian Century White Paper, constituted the total of Australia’s international interests and that it was ‘dangerous to concentrate on them at the expense of a more widely focused foreign policy’. Russell made a similar point when he said the new government should ‘examine comprehensively all of Australia’s foreign policy interests, not merely those focused on the Asia–Pacific’.

Our attention shouldn’t be just on what’s happening in Asia, but also what’s happening in the rest of the world, including Africa. In eight of the past ten years, Africa has grown faster than East Asia. The Bread from Stones forum was attended by around 300 people from academia, industry, government and civil society groups, with significant African representation. Some 24% of the world’s agriculture land is in Africa, although it produces only 9% of the world’s agricultural output.

The starting point was that the vast majority of Australian exploration and mining activities in Africa occur in close proximity to rural communities. The interaction between these two major components of African economies poses challenges and opportunities for both mining and agriculture, as well as the communities in which they’re located. There was recognition that the conversation between Australian miners, Australian researchers and other groups working on agriculture in Africa had been ‘stovepiped’. The forum was useful in opening up the policy conversation between the two sectors.

There were a number of positive examples given of Australian mining companies in Africa supporting corporate social responsibility projects in agriculture. The forum examined how mining infrastructure and expertise can be used to improve the ability of communities to grow food. Several participants talked about the way infrastructure developments for mining, such as rail, road or port upgrades, can be leveraged to improve the host nation’s agricultural supply chain. Others stressed the risks when communities are forced to move to make way for mining projects. Some raised the issue of alternative uses of areas after mines were closed. It was clear that Africa and Australia have a lot to share on how agriculture and mining interact in the areas of water, land use, infrastructure, and local economies.

When the Africa DownUnder conference started ten years ago, it attracted about 90 delegates and representation from 25 mining companies listed on the Australian Stock Exchange. Over 2000 delegates attended this year’s conference. The conference showcased the fact that Australian companies are now involved in some 700 resource projects in 42 African countries, with more investment on the cards. Australian investment in African resource projects is now around $40 billion.

Over a dozen African resources ministers attended, many of whom spoke on how natural resources were a good passport for development. They stressed the need to share the wealth from resource projects, manage community expectations, and diversify the economy, particularly combining mining and agriculture. Several emphasised that it was critical to get a national consensus on priorities for how to use resources to diversify their economies.

African delegates indicated they wished to do more business with Australia because our companies don’t carry the same historical baggage in Africa as many other investors in the extractive sector. Similar themes to the Bread from Stones forum emerged; Australian miners have experience and knowledge to transfer to Africa, particularly in areas like mining governance, environmental needs and social licence to operate.

Both these conferences, and ASPI–Brenthurst Foundation’s Aus-Africa Dialogue, confirm the value of Australia taking a broader view in our foreign policy, and the value of sharing expertise and experiences. As one delegate at Africa DownUnder said: ‘There’s an African proverb: If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.’ I think this just about sums it up.

Anthony Bergin is the deputy director of ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center.