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Benny Dembitzer: On modern day Africa – WES 2019

The current Managing Director for Grassroots Africa, Benny Dembitzer, gave a poignant speech during WES 2019. Grassroots Africa is an organisation that aims to help reduce ‘malnutrition in Africa through improved farming productivity of local farmers and communities’. The main role of the organisation is to provide free access to ‘expert, relevant and practical agricultural advice’. With this in mind, Benny Dembitzer’s focused a lot on how methods such as these should be encouraged, and would help to solve the problem of malnutrition in Africa. He also allowed us to reinterpret our vision of Africa by focusing on the “colossal misunderstanding” surrounding global migration.

He started by describing how, at present, we are faced with a long list of global issues – “consumerism, climate change, trade war, resistance to antibiotics”. He then explained how one of the biggest challenges to our society is the issue of migration. He “put to us a few issues that don’t come up regularly in the press, or our lectures” – starting with a comparison between Africa and other areas of the world. “You could fit the whole of the US in Western Africa”, and so on and so forth. He explained how Africa is an “enormously varied continent with all kinds of people, and societies”.  His main message was that our current attitude towards migration is a “colossal misunderstanding” because “the push factors that force people to leave their countries in sub-Saharan Africa are far more powerful than the pull factors of the attractions of Europe.”

Africa food imports currently are increasing. Yet “Africa is the only part of the world that has enough land to potentially feed itself.” – Benny Dembitzer WES 2019

He analysed the result of migration from Africa, saying that “our societies are being changed as a result of the perceived onslaught”. He also explained that what we do not often understand is that it is often the most educated migrants who come to Europe. The poorer people in these places have no assets, and cannot migrate to Europe. He explained how many political opportunists are using tremendous migration to back their campaign – alluding to the migration from Latin America to the US delivering Trump, and the migration to Europe delivering Brexit.

There is an inherent contradiction in some of the present practices of Africa – which he poignantly argues have been influenced by external meddling from other countries. Sub-saharan Africa did not import food before 1980, but Africa food imports currently are increasing. Yet “Africa is the only part of the world that has enough land to potentially feed itself.” Currently, there are large areas in Africa that are becoming increasing deserted and desperately lack investment – there are “250 million hectares of land that could be used for agriculture” where only nomads go. Given that the overall population of Africa is predicted to double by 2050, and the number of undernourished people is expected to rise, the situation is only going to worsen.

Those who “dominate globalisation think that it plays everywhere with the same strength. It does not.” – Benny Dembitzer WES 2019

The challenges facing Africa are many, and have not, thus far, been correctly tackled by external forces – perhaps even worsened by these. There is too much interference from the outside. External governments emphasise the role of the central state – a concept that is “irrelevant in societies that are highly heterogeneous”. Africa has many societies, cultures, and religions – which means there is no commonality of language. Relying on a central state to “deliver the services required is inconceivable” in Africa. In addition to this, African farmers are facing the huge issue of unpredictability – which is problematic because the primary exports of Africa are tobacco, cotton, coffee, cocoa and sugar.

Describing the huge European and Western organisations as “armchair generals of development”, Dembitzer made the stark analysis that those who “dominate globalisation think that it plays everywhere with the same strength. It does not.” He described how these organisations have “forced African nations to open their markets to us” – which leads to what he emphasised as a key aspect of his talk – “we are encouraging the wrong changes”.

“Economic development requires starting from a different point of view” – Benny Dembitzer WES 2019

And he gave some suggestions as to what could be done differently. He said “If you want to solve starvation, enable people to become independent at producing their own food” – one of the main aims of Grassroots Africa. He explained how women are the key agents of development in this – as often the men in these societies will aspire to the “elitism and education that continue to profit the Western world”. Using microfinance, the farmers can be targeted, which and investment can be put into improving structures from the very baseline. He finished by expressing that “economic development requires starting from a different point of view” – and emphasised that giving African societies the tools to empower themselves, especially through farmer, is the first step to improvement.

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