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African Food Revolution

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Posted on 9 September 2020, by Makhosi Mahlangu


Disclaimer: The following article has been written by Isaac Adelekun from Lagos (Nigeria)

African agriculture has become the focus of extraordinary attention and interest. I couldn’t remember the year, a big report was launched by the Harvard academic Calestous with the backing of several African presidents, and next week Chatham House in London hosted a major conference on food security where the International Fund for Agriculture and Development (Ifad) is launching a new report on rural poverty.

Meanwhile Olivier De Schutter, the UN special rapporteur on the right to food, warned that the current UN climate summit in Cancun needs to launch a “Green Marshall Plan for Agriculture” or risk a possible 40% increase in emissions by 2030 if current agricultural methods are extended.

Rising food prices and terrible future scenarios of the impact of climate change on food production, are focusing minds on what is perceived as Africa’s huge untapped potential for agriculture. According to my research, this week yet another report from the International Food Policy Research Institute warns that inspite of lack of food, the climate change and could push prices up by 130%, and calls for unprecedented human ingenuity to meet the challenge of feeding a burgeoning population.

Some of this renewed interest from around the world is self interest; countries eyeing Africa as a source of food, which is prompting an unprecedented rush to buy or lease land. But the foreign interest is matched by that of many African countries keenly aware that improving agricultural productivity is key to entrenched problems of poverty – on average 64% of Africans depend on agriculture for their income – and hunger.

Central to all the discussion is the assertion that Africa could produce far more food than it currently does. In contrast with Asia, which has seen huge increases in agricultural yields in the last 40 years, sub-Saharan Africa’s track record has been abysmal. Food production is actually 10% lower today than in 1960, yet over this time period the aggregate world food production has increased by 145%.

The reasons are not hard to find. The use of fertiliser is strikingly low – only 13kg per hectare in sub-Saharan Africa compared with a north African average of 71kg. Only 24% of cereal is using improved seeds compared with 85% in east Asia. The lack of investment in nutrients has led to a catastrophic depletion of soils; 75% of farmland in sub-Saharan Africa has been degraded by overuse. As soil fertility has fallen, farmers have expanded into forests to maintain incomes, leading to deforestation – which in turn leads to more problems, for example with soil erosion such as I saw in my visit to Mali recently.

But if there is widespread agreement on the causes of the problem, there is an extraordinarily polarised debate about the best strategy to tackle the problem. On one side there is a powerful lobby which argues that biotechnology, massive investment in irrigation and mechanisation are the way forward, and on the other side are those who argue that these kinds of investments are usually tied up in big corporate deals in which local smallholder subsistence farmers lose out – either they lose their land or access to water, and often both.

Scholars and other prestigious panel of international experts have attempted to pick a politically feasible path between these two positions. His report, A New Harvest, is being launched with the backing a clutch of presidents, including those of Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi.

Inevitably, his enthusiasm for biotechnology will trigger anxieties among that alliance of European and African activists who believe that this entails Faustian pacts with multinational corporations.

Another constituency will also be doubtful on the grounds that this kind of emphasis on biotech and science as the way forward in Africa lacks understanding of how development is largely a political process and crucially depends on the effectiveness of institutions – it is a weakness of westerners to believe that clever technology can sort any problem out.

One old hand in the field told me the other day that, on average, it takes 46 years for agricultural innovations to get from the laboratory to widespread use in the field in Africa; it’s not lack of technology that is the problem but effective means to disseminate practical solutions. Technology might be able to achieve quick fixes in health on the continent, but they might be elusive in agriculture because it entails much more complex issues of land rights and power.

Unfortunately, that is what has often been lacking in sub-Saharan Africa. And to be fair, the desperate state of  

Apparently, African Food Revolution which insisted on cutting back the role of the state in funding research and agricultural extension services of many countries.

So, the question is  what can be done to boost African agricultural productivity? The eight factors below are drawn from scholars position, mutual collaboration coupled with my philosophical and analyticity exposition of the happenings in Africa as far as African Revolution is concerned.

1. Develop high-yield crops

Increased research into plant breeding, which takes into account the unique soil types of Africa, is a major requirement. A dollar invested in such research by the CGIAR consortium of agricultural research centres is estimated to yield six dollars in benefits.

2. Boost irrigation

With the growing effects of climate change on weather patterns, more irrigation will be needed. Average yields in irrigated farms are 90% higher than those of nearby rain-fed farms.

3. Increase the use of fertilizers

As soil fertility deteriorates, fertilizer use must increase. Governments need to ensure the right type of fertilizers are available at the right price, and at the right times. Fertilizer education lessens the environmental impact and an analysis of such training programs in East Africa found they boosted average incomes by 61%.

4. Improve market access, regulations, and governance

Improving rural infrastructure such as roads is crucial to raising productivity through reductions in shipping costs and the loss of perishable produce. Meanwhile, providing better incentives to farmers, including reductions in food subsidies, could raise agricultural output by nearly 5%.

5. Make better use of information technology

Information technology can support better crop, fertilizer and pesticide selection. It also improves land and water management, provides access to weather information, and connects farmers to sources of credit. Simply giving farmers information about crop prices in different markets has increased their bargaining power. Esoko, a provider of a mobile crop information services, estimates they can boost incomes by 10-30%.

6. Adopt genetically modified (GM) crops

The adoption of GM crops in Africa remains limited. Resistance from overseas customers, particularly in Europe, has been a hindrance. But with Africa’s rapid population growth, high-yield GM crops that are resistant to weather shocks provide an opportunity for Africa to address food insecurity. An analysis of more than one hundred studies found that GM crops  reduced pesticide use by 37%, increased yields by 22%, and farmer profits by 68%.

7. Reform land ownership with productivity and inclusiveness in mind

Africa has the highest area of arable uncultivated land in the world (202 million hectares) yet most farms occupy less than 2 hectares. This results from poor land governance and ownership. Land reform has had mixed results on the African continent but changes that clearly define property rights, ensure the security of land tenure, and enable land to be used as collateral will be necessary if many African nations are to realise potential productivity gains.

8. Step up integration into Agricultural Value Chains (AVCs)

Driven partly by the growth of international supermarket chains, African economies have progressively diversified from traditional cash crops into fruits, vegetables, fish, and flowers. However, lack of access to finance and poor infrastructure have slowed progress. Government support, crucial to coordinate the integration of smallholder farmers into larger cooperatives and groups, may be needed in other areas that aid integration with wider markets.