Africa can feed itself

Through science-based agriculture, Africa has the capacity to make a transition from poverty stricken importer – gloomy perceptions of the continent – to feed itself in one generation, argues a book titled “The New Harvest” written by African-Harvard scholar Professor Calestous Juma.
Key elements in the transition, Prof Juma reasons, are use of modern technologies including modern biotechnology and investment in geographical sciences for improved natural resource management, continued expansion of basic infrastructure telecommunications, transportation, energy, and irrigation.
Additionally, improved technical education, especially for women and provision of experiential education; creation of new enterprises, especially in fields such as seed production, farm mechanisation, food storage and processing;  harmonisation of trading practices that extends regional markets; close co-operation between government, industry, academia and civil society in policy formulation and implementation.
The use of improved seeds through biotechnology, he says, could dramatically increase farm yields.
South Africa, for example, had 2.1 million hectares of biotechnology-improved corn in production in 2009, up 18 percent over the previous year. From 2008 to 2009, Burkina Faso’s cotton producers recorded the world’s fastest adoption rate of a genetically improved crop.
Nanotechnology, says Prof Juma, could be used to quickly and effectively detect and treat crop diseases, and for water purification – a critical issue given that 300 million Africans lack access to a clean supply.
Agricultural yields, farm incomes and poverty rates were stagnant and in some cases worsened during those four decades.
Although 70 percent of Africans are engaged in farming, production is so low that nearly 250 million people, one-quarter of the population, are undernourished – a figure that has risen by 100 million since 1990.
One-third of Africans are chronically hungry, while drought, soil degradation and disease appear endemic, the author notes.
According to the book, only four percent of the continent’s cropland is irrigated. Fertilizers, pesticides and high-quality seeds are expensive and in short supply. Only a small minority of farmers uses machinery that’s commonplace in Europe and North America. Deforestation is spreading as farmers seek to replace exhausted fields.
Water and energy supplies are often inadequate. Poor roads make it difficult to bring supplies and expertise to farms and get their produce to markets. Government policies, lack of investment, bloody conflicts, the HIV and AIDS pandemic and the global financial crisis all add to the problem.
In turn, agriculture’s poor performance hamstrings the rest of Africa’s economy.
Prof Juma says it’s important to see past the problems to recognise Africa’s immense land, water and energy resources. It is the only continent with arable land readily available to expand agriculture. Southern Sudan alone could feed all Africans if properly developed, he points out.
And the continent is not universally poor and underdeveloped. Some countries are doing well, advanced technology is widespread and strategies that the report recommends are being attempted, most notably in Malawi.
In very general terms, the plan would see African farmers to increase production of traditionally popular foods to be sold on the continent. Eventually, as production increased, exports would follow, spurring development of non-farm businesses.
Farming would be viewed as a knowledge-based industry that marries technology and local indigenous techniques and experience.
The process would be both top-down and community-oriented, Prof. Juma says. Central governments would set production goals and standards, and provide infrastructure, investment capital and technical help. Local groups would decide how best to achieve the goals and support their farmers.
“We have come to the end of a century of policies that favored Africa’s export of raw materials and importation of food. Africa is starting to focus on agricultural innovation as its new engine for regional trade and prosperity,” he says.
Prof Juma goes on: “Yet Africa has abundant arable land and labor which, with an agreed common approach and sound policies, could translate into greater production, incomes and food security.
“The plan would combine the use of modern science and technology, infrastructure expansion, improved technical education, and stimulation of business development. By focusing on women and rural prosperity, Africa would create a more inclusive agricultural revolution.
“An African agricultural revolution is within reach, provided the continent can focus on supporting small-scale farmers to help meet national and regional demand for food.”
He indicates that China, India, Brazil and others are recognising Africa’s overwhelming potential with a rising level of strategic investment.
“With its vast untapped resources, Africa enjoys tremendous potential and opportunities but remains characterised by persistent food shortages, which may be worsened by climate change unless efforts to change direction are stepped up.
“One way for Africa to foster inclusive economic growth is to apply innovation in agriculture which employs the majority of the people. This is also a way to address concerns that technology widens the gap between the rich and the poor. The use of module phones in rural Africa show the promise of more inclusive innovation strategies.”
The political leadership should co-ordinate critical input involved a diversity of powerful ministries dealing with finance, infrastructure, education, trade and industry, and regional cooperation.
All of the ingredients are crucial, Prof Juma says.
The book has already received accolades from African leaders. Bingu wa Mutharika, the Former President of Malawi has said: “The dream that five years from now no child in Africa should die of hunger and malnutrition. No child should go to bed hungry. I realize that this is an ambitious dream but one that can be realised. We can … grow enough food to feed everyone in Africa.”
Goodluck Jonathan, President of Nigeria adds: “This book presents a timely analysis of the importance of infrastructure in improving Africa’s agriculture. Leaders at national and state levels will benefit immensely from its evidence-based recommendations.”
Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf weighs in saying: “This book is a forceful reminder of the important role that African women play in agriculture on the continent. It is critical that they are provided with equal educational opportunity as a starting point for building a new economic future for the continent.”
And Blaise Compaoré of Burkina Faso chips in with:  “New technologies, especially biotechnology, provide African countries with additional tools for improving the welfare of farmers.
I commend this book for the emphasis it places on the critical role that technological innovation plays in agriculture. The study is a timely handbook for those seeking new ways of harnessing new technologies for development, including poor farmers, many of whom are women.”
• Elvis Mboya is The Southern Times‘ correspondent in East Africa and is based in Nairobi. He can be contacted at

July 2013
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