Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Africa Poised for Major Expansion of Food Production

Although Challenges Remain, Growing Evidence Supports Need for Investments in Integrated Approaches to Bring Fruits of Science to Farmers in the Field

“Agriculture in Africa is turning around. But if we want to put the days of stagnation firmly behind us, we need to foster a new era of collaboration that links evidence-based solutions being developed by researchers to public and private sector investments. None of us can work in isolation,” said Dr. Monty Jones, Executive Director of the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA) at 5th Agriculture Science Week and FARA General Assembly in Ouagadougou.

“The consensus coalescing around an integrated approach to agricultural development will allow Africa to transition from being a perennial ‘laggard’ in food production to a ‘lion’ on the move,” Jones added.

The gathering featured five days of intensive exchanges on how to increase investments in African agriculture in the wake of the financial crisis and priorities for mitigating the risks posed by globalization and climate change.

The FARA General Assembly occurred amidst growing interest from both inside and outside of Africa on how to realize the continent’s untapped agricultural potential. A report released earlier this month from McKinsey & Company predicts Africa’s agriculture sector could rapidly advance from generating US $280 billion a year today in revenue to $500 billion by 2020 to as much as $880 billion by 2030. According to some estimates, Africa has 60 percent of the world’s remaining arable land and an unmatched bounty of natural resources and plant and animal biodiversity.

Jones and others at the General Assembly acknowledged that significant challenges remain in addressing chronic food problems, as witnessed by the food shortages now affecting Niger and other countries of the Sahel region. But they insisted the overall trends across Africa are positive and noted that several African nations are on track to reach the United Nations Millennium Development Goal of cutting poverty in half by 2015.

For example, there were discussions at the conference of projects underway in northern Nigeria, Mozambique, southern Niger, and Uganda that have brought together research institutes, extension agents, and farmers’ organizations to introduce improved crop varieties of staples. In Uganda, farmers are growing NERICA rice varieties in upland areas that had never produced rice before. Uganda is now a net-exporter of rice.

“We are seeing in these and many other initiatives underway today how the process of integrating agriculture research for development (AR4D) can rapidly deliver innovation,” said Denis Kyetere, Director General, National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO), Uganda, and Chairman of FARA’s Executive Board.

Among the many themes that emerged during the week was the need for more direct links between the researchers who are developing improved seeds and new farming techniques for Africa’s challenging, rain-fed conditions and the farmers who must implement them. Farmer groups in particular made it clear that they must have a voice in establishing research priorities.

“Smallholder farmers in Africa are researchers are in their own right,” Abiel Banda, Vice President of the Southern African Confederation of Agricultural Unions (SACAU). “Where there is an identification of indigenous technology by farmers, researchers must recognize it. They need us as much as we need them.”

This theme was echoed by Hon. Mr. Venâncio Simão Massingue, Mozambique’s Minister of Science and Technology. He described the creation in “virtual knowledge centers” that link the country’s farm scientists to rural communities and direct researchers to identify problems and create solutions.

“When my scientists go into the field, I ask them not to even take bottled water and mosquito repellents. They need to understand the conditions in the community if they are going to understand their problems,” he said.

The FARA meeting also revealed a deepening commitment from governments to pursuing agriculture-driven economic growth.

Ministers from several African countries were on hand to announce their commitment the African Union’s Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Program (CAADP). There are now 19 countries in Africa that through CAADP have adopted a common approach to agriculture development that includes a commitment to increasing agriculture production by 6 percent each year and allocating 10 percent of government budgets to the farm sector. Burkina Faso signed the CAADP compact on the final day of the General Assembly.

Harvard University’s Calestous Juma said effectively using government funds and policies to improve agriculture means decision makers must pay greater attention to emerging technology trends.

“Rapid scientific advancement and constant changes in the global knowledge ecology require African leaders at all levels to start creating institutions for scientific advice and analysis,” he said. “Agricultural innovation could be the first beneficiary of informed advice from such bodies.”

But it was widely noted at the conference that government action alone is insufficient.

“Despite the progress we have achieved in strengthening funding for the agriculture sector, our investment needs remain huge and efforts are needed to find more support,” said Hon. Dr. Laurent Sedogo, Burkina Faso’s Minister’s of Agriculture, Water Resources and Fisheries.

In a discussion on financing, Namanga Ngongi, president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), said that farmers needed more consistent access to capital to increase adoption of new technologies. He pointed out that “agriculture contributes 40 percent of GDP and employs 70 percent of the labor force in Africa but it receives only 2 percent of commercial bank loans.”

AGRA’s efforts to use credit guarantees to facilitate farmer financing in Tanzania, Mozambique, Ghana, and Kenya have “unlocked” $160 million for smallholder farmers, local agro-dealers and others across the agriculture value chain, according to Ngongi.

Other issues highlighted at the conference included:

ν Efforts underway across the continent to balance food production needs with the potential for biofuels to provide both income and energy for agriculture enterprises.
ν The growing role of the BRIC countries--Brazil, India and China--in financing agriculture and other development projects in Africa.
ν Issues related to the use of biotechnology on Africa farms, including presentations on a program that is developing transgenic high-yield and drought-tolerant corn.
ν The importance of Africa’s plant and livestock biodiversity to addressing the challenges of food production, which included warnings that disease and drought resistant breeds that have evolved over thousands of years in Africa are at risk of being lost to various pressures, including cross-breeding with more productive but less resilient European and North American cattle.

“If countries can maintain the positive momentum, Africa will soon be in a position of unprecedented strength,” said Monty Jones. “The challenge we put to our FARA members is to develop the relationships between researchers and farmers, between the public and the private sector, to create a platform for progress.”

Jones added, “The only way for Africa to move forward is from a position of strength. Ultimately, the solution to our food challenges will come not from charity, but from investment.”

Photo credit: Jeff Haskins

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