Africa has the means to feed itself but does it have the support – and the will?

By Dr Lindiwe Majele Sibanda *

Africa has a quarter of the world’s arable land but produces only a tenth of our food. On the eve of a pan-African conference on food security, Lindiwe Sibanda asks how African farmers can turn things round.

One week from now, 200 agricultural experts from across Africa and around the world will meet in Namibia at the annual regional food security policy dialogue of the Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (Fanrpan) to discuss some of the most pressing issues facing the African continent.

One month from now, a UN summit will take place in New York to discuss the upcoming five-year deadline for achieving the millennium development goals (MDGs), the successes gained so far and the new priorities that must be supported.

However, in today’s world these discussions need not, and should not, be confined to those in Namibia or New York. This is why I am asking readers of this website to create their own dialogue here about the issues we are addressing and the potential solutions available.Food security in Africa is still only an aspiration. With one-quarter of the world’s arable land, Africa produces only 10% of its total global output. More than 265 million people are still chronically hungry, yet Africa is estimated to hold 60% of the world’s remaining uncultivated farmland.

The potential for agriculture to boost rural livelihoods, reduce poverty and underpin other sectors of the economy is well established. Agriculture is the most important source of livelihood throughout Africa, accounting for more than 70% of total employment. And 65% of that figure is made up of women farmers.

A recent panel debate led by the Guardian’s Katine website and Farm-Africa discusses precisely this question: how can African
smallholder farmers transform themselves into entrepreneurs?

It has also been estimated that agricultural production could potenitally grow more than three-fold over the next 20 years, rising from $280bn today to $880bn by 2030. Agricultural development is also a significant poverty reduction tool. In its 2008 World Development report, the World Bank calculates that agricultural growth is at least twice as effective at eliminating poverty as growth from any other sector.

Mystery of the missing funds

So why are funds for agricultural development in Africa only a fraction of what they were a generation ago? And why have bankers been propped up and bailed out by taxpayers over the past few years, while farmers have continued to suffer from a generation of neglect by policymakers for agricultural development? Back in 1980, agricultural investment made up 17% of total foreign aid yet, as of 2006, it had dwindled to a mere 3% of this total.

Improving agricultural productivity will require a combination of increased training and market access as well as continued research to produce further innovations. To achieve this, organisations from every relevant sector will need to partner together to leverage their comparative advantages successfully.

Malawi’s agricultural input subsidy programme is an example of such an integrated programme. Fanrpan’s research on this initiative indicates that input subsidies can work and be cost-effective under the right policy conditions. Malawi’s programme blended public and private sector involvement: the Malawi government oversaw the issue of flexi-vouchers to qualifying farmers, yet recipients were then able to spend these vouchers in an open market supplied by private-sector
distribution channels.

In the three years after the launch of the Malawi initiative, average maize yields in Malawi increased from 0.8 tonnes per hectare in 2005 to 2.9 tonnes per hectare in 2008. Malawi has transformed itself from being a food deficit nation to a grain exporter. In a recent video interview, President Bingu wa Mutharika outlined how this transformation could be scaled up to improve food security across the continent.

Helping farmers to access the information and tools they need is critical, yet these programmes require enough time and the right resources to succeed. Ugandan farmer Francis Kamara discusses the difficulty of accessing markets and finding buyers for products in an audio clip on the Katine website.

Many African farmers still rely solely on traditional knowledge when making planting and harvesting decisions, yet more extreme and erratic weather patterns are sadly making this traditional knowledge unreliable. The predicted increase in floods, droughts, heatwaves and salinity exposure in soils also make it imperative to invest in new agronomic techniques and improved inputs designed to tolerate these types of environments.

In Katine, for instance, farmers are already receiving early-maturing and drought-resistant seeds to fight food insecurity. Katine farmers are also receiving post-harvest help through traditional granaries so that their harvests are not lost.

Only 4% of farmland in sub-Saharan Africa is irrigated, which means that most farmers, especially smallholders, rely on rainfall to feed their crops. But many lands are suitable for further investment in this effective rural infrastructure. For instance, in eastern and southern Africa, an estimated 596.7m hectares are suitable for irrigation, yet only 2% of this land has any irrigation system in place.

Women farmers need a voice

Women farmers must also be included in training programmes and the formation of agricultural policies. Despite performing the bulk of the farming work across Africa, women often have no voice in how agricultural policies are developed and implemented. In a pilot programme funded by the Gates Foundation, Fanrpan is using theatre to help local women farmers express themselves and shape how agricultural policies affect them, such as the distribution and timing of seed subsidies by village elders – almost exclusively men.

Equally, in Katine, women struggle to balance the responsibilities of managing the household and taking care of daily chores, which could include weeding the fields, tending to sick family members or fetching water and firewood. Overcoming these gender inbalances requires a sustained effort across a number of initiatives.

Another often overlooked group of farmers is the more than 200 million Africans who rely on livestock for their livelihoods, or 20% of the total population and 70% of the rural poor. Livestock producers often work in difficult cross-border environments, and their success frequently depends on their ability to move freely and take advantage
of marginal lands on which crops might not easily grow. The impact of
climate change are jeopardising these producers’ ability to gain access to the water and pastures which keep their animals safe and healthy (as the recent floods in Pakistan and droughts in the horn of Africa have shown.)

Similarly, the fisheries sector employs around 10 million Africans and provides an opportunity to exploit water resources, for instance, farmers in eastern Uganda with access to the waters of Lake Victoria. Together, these sectors provide much needed nutrition and surplus incomes for many Africans and have become a priority area for further research in bridging African productivity gaps and fulfilling agriculture’s potential to reduce malnutrition and poverty.

We are calling on world leaders to acknowledge these needs and further develop the policies and programmes needed to empower Africa’s farmers for the future. But we are also calling on you, the reader, to get involved. What questions and answers do you have when facing the huge challenges of maintaining and increasing Africa’s food production?

* Dr Lindiwe Majele Sibanda is Chief Executive Officer and Head of
Mission at the Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis
Network (FANRPAN), a regional policy research and advocacy network
whose operations are informed by major regional policy frameworks and
processes in Southern Africa.

Source:  Katine Chronicles Blog (23 August 2010)



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