Food production in Africa could be substantially expanded if financial backing for research and for small farmers can be improved, according to former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
Such changes would help reduce hunger and poverty in Africa and stimulate the growth of African businesses at a time when world food prices are rising because of population growth and demand for better food as people in countries like China and India move out of poverty. That could help ease the pace of food price rises around the world.
“There is no doubt that Africa is on the move. The continent is again rightly being seen as a place of opportunity. Economic growth is strong. Countries and companies are queuing up to invest,” said Annan, now chairman of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), in a speech last week.
Africa in recent years has seen a surge of foreign investors – primarily from the Middle East but also from countries like China – lining up to purchase or lease large tracts of its farmland to produce crops for export to their own nations. Proponents of the sales say they are bringing needed agricultural investment to the continent, but others fear the so-called “land grabs” could reduce Africa’s own food security and lead to small farmers being pushed off their land.
Africa today accounts for about 3 percent of the world economy, but experts project its annual GDP could nearly double from $1.5 trillion dollars to $2.6 trillion by 2020, based in part on the rising value of its land and crops.
Studies by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) have shown agriculture to be the most effective driver of growth in the world’s poorest countries. Raising agricultural productivity is essential for reducing rural poverty, enhancing food security, and stimulating broad-based economic growth, according to USAID.
Any plans to improve agricultural production must focus on improving the technical, economic, legal and trade conditions under which farmers and agribusinesses operate, Annan said.
Supporting Africa’s farmers could help not only reduce hunger in Africa but help meet future food needs across the world, with global demand for food set to grow by 50 percent in the next two decades, according to Annan.
Relatively thinly populated Africa is itself expected to see some of the planet’s highest rates of population growth in coming decades. Worldwide, population is expected to grow from 7 billion to close to 9 billion by 2050.
Revamping African agriculture to boost production must start with policy changes, Annan said. In Tanzania, strong national leadership and good policies focused on opening up opportunities for smallholder farmers are leading to transformations in the countryside and new investments in the country. The government’s Green Revolution strategy, “Kilimo Kwanza,” is driving Tanzania’s rapid emergence as an agricultural powerhouse for the region, Annan said.
Efforts to boost the continent’s agricultural production must focus largely on Africa’s millions of small farmers rather than on larger farming operations, the former UN chief said.
“Smallholder farmers are the mainstay of African agriculture and they must be at the heart of Africa’s green revolution,” he said.
Effectively boosting food production in Africa could bring a variety of other benefits, he said, including tackling climate change and poverty, stimulating business growth and improving the position of women in society. Most of Africa’s farmers are women.
AGRA’s “breadbasket” strategy focuses on boosting yields and expanding areas of cultivated land first in areas with both fertile land and existing infrastructure, particularly things like roads and railways needed to get crops to market.
The continent also needs to boost the volume of trade between regions, encourage financial institutions to support agricultural enterprises, and direct development aid toward improving agricultural technologies.
“By supporting Africa’s farmers, we can take a major step to banishing hunger from the continent and helping future food needs across the world,” Annan said.
Ray Jordan, of international development agency Self Help Africa, said he backed Annan’s ideas but emphasised that Africa must win sustained and long-term aid for its agricultural sector if decades of neglect of farming on the continent are to be redressed.
The share of international aid in Africa devoted to agriculture fell from around 20 percent in 1980 to just 4 percent in 2000, and “the results of this neglect were obvious to anyone working in African agriculture – the production of food on the continent fell dramatically”, Jordan said.
He warned against focusing on short-term fixes, saying the continent needs “unwavering support for decades to come.“
“There is very little disagreement about the vital role that agriculture in Africa will play into the future,” he said. “The danger, however, is that there won’t be enough investment in the sector to bring about the required transformation.”
One area ripe for investment, he said, is irrigation. Just 4 percent of farmland in sub-Saharan Africa is irrigated, despite a relative wealth of accessible groundwater across the region.
Helping farmers with access to good quality seeds, with training and with access to markets also will pay dividends, he said.