African agricultural development: opportunities and challenges
Your Excellency Vice-President of Ghana
Members of Parliament,
Chairman of FARA,
Ladies and gentlemen,
It gives me great pleasure to be here in Accra, speaking to such a distinguished audience of African leaders and scientists. Context is everything, and the context of this meeting – Africa Feeding Africa – says it all.
Africa can feed Africa. Africa should feed Africa. And I believe that Africa will feed Africa.
Before I outline my thoughts on how agricultural research for development can help Africa both feed itself and reduce poverty, I would also like to put my remarks in context. But first, when I speak of agriculture, I am referring to food and tree crops, livestock, fisheries, etc.
As you know, I head an agency that has consistently funded research and agricultural development in Africa for 35 years. You may also know that I am a research scientist by training and profession, with a career in agricultural research that has spanned three decades.
But you may not be aware that back in 1999, I chaired the task force that created the Vision for African Agricultural Research.
I was also on the committee that led to the foundation of FARA – a committee that still exists today, although in a different form.
These experiences have shaped my perspective, and give me a deep personal and professional interest in the successful development of African agriculture.
When I think about African agricultural development today, I cannot help but remember how promising things looked some 30 to 40 years ago.
At the time, we felt we were at the start of a golden age for African agriculture.
We had universities with agricultural faculties, research centres and research stations we could be proud of. Our graduates at universities in – Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal and Uganda – were some of the best in the world, and students came from abroad to study here.
Kisangani, in Congo DRC, was a city of research. I know, because I was posted there, in DRC, in 1977 by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), with funding from IFAD, to work on eliminating the cassava mealy bug.
The research we did for the Africa-wide Biological Control Programme helped save at least 20 million lives in the cassava belt of sub-Saharan Africa. It also saved more than US$2 billion in production.
The total cost of the programme was only US$20 million.
In other words, for every dollar spent, one life was saved.
Another not-too-far away example is Nerica rice developed by Dr Monty Jones, FARA’s outgoing Executive Director, who at the time was a research scientist at WARDA, which is now the Africa Rice Center.
The first NERICA farmer field trials were done in 1998/2000 in Côte d’Ivoire and Guinea. There are now scores of new NERICA varieties being grown throughout Africa.
These, and many others, remain fine examples of the impact that research can have on food security and people’s lives. And you will understand why agricultural research for development is an issue that is particularly close to my heart.
In the Sixties and Seventies, many African countries were net exporters of major food and cash crops, not importers as they are today. About 20 per cent of national budgets at that time went to agriculture.
It felt like Africa was on the cusp of eliminating poverty and hunger, and taking its place in the world of research and development.
These were the years when India was described as a hopeless case; when people in China died of famine; Brazil was dependent on food aid and massive food imports and South Korea received assistance from some African countries.
I, and others here today, well remember the groundnut pyramids in Kano, the bales of cotton in Bornu, Kano and Sokoto; the rice fields of Abakaliki, Nigeria and Korogho and Man, Côte d'Ivoire, the floating timber along the West African coast; expanses of oil palm here in Ghana, as well as Nigeria and Côte d'Ivoire, not to mention tea plantations of East Africa.
What happened to them?
Today, it seems that while much of the world has moved forward, Africa has moved backward.
Over the past three decades, agricultural productivity in Africa has been stagnant or in decline.
Because of years of under-investment and an ill-advised structural adjustment.
Funding to agriculture, to universities and to research centres fell steadily and steeply. Too many of the gains we had made were reversed. Our universities lost good people. The quality of education declined.
To make matters worse, average global spending on agricultural research also fell.
Is it any wonder, that there is so much poverty and hunger on our continent? The resulting waste of so much human life and potential is not only tragic, it is a disgrace because there is simply no reason for it.
Agriculture -- spanning crop production, fishing, livestock, forestry and pasture -- has driven economic growth through the centuries, from 18th Century England, to 19th Century Japan, to 20th Century India, to Brazil, China, South Korea and Viet Nam today.
We know what needs to be done. And we know what can be done. If we do not use this understanding to make a significant and lasting dent in the rates of hunger, under-nutrition and poverty in Africa, then we will have failed our nations and ourselves.
There are encouraging signs that African nations are once more focused on investing in agriculture for growth.
The development of a Science Agenda for Agriculture in Africa under the auspices of FARA is an important step on the road to a strong agricultural sector. It is all the more important because it is Africa-owned and Africa-led. It holds the promise of African farmers and citizens reaping the benefits of African research.
But it will only translate into stronger nations and better lives for the people of Africa if it is supported by coherent investment in agriculture for development.
There have been some encouraging developments. NEPAD’s Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP), promises to strengthen food production and security. A number of countries have now met or exceeded their Maputo Declaration target of spending 10 per cent of national budget on agriculture. Many more now have strong agricultural development and financing plans.
But we still have much work ahead.
The task ahead of us is more complex than it was 30 years ago. Food prices are higher and more volatile than ever. The world’s population is heading toward 9 billion, with much of that growth in Africa.
Indeed, the challenges of today are not what they were 30 years ago. Climate change, higher temperatures, prolonged droughts, extensive flooding are now forces to be reckoned with.
To make matters more complicated, the fragility of many countries has been worsened by conflict. In Mali, Niger, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia, conflict has choked agricultural and livestock production, along with markets and trade flows. As a result, millions of women and men have been deprived of their livelihoods, further limiting food access and availability.
The great and tragic irony of all of this is that, globally, we already produce enough food to feed every child, woman and man on this planet. Not just for today but for the foreseeable future.
But food is not getting to the people who most need it. Consider that:
Our continent is not immune to waste. In sub-Saharan Africa, an estimated 20 to 40 per cent of the crops produced deteriorate after harvest because they cannot be safely stored.
Consider that post -harvest grain losses in sub-Saharan Africa average US$4 billion every year. This is food that could meet the nutritional needs of around 48 million people.
Losses on this scale are scandalous, particularly on a continent where millions go hungry.
When we consider the challenges and opportunities for African agriculture, we must look at the whole picture. If we set our sights only on improving productivity, there is a very real danger that we will grow more food in Africa without feeding more people.
Let me be clear. There are many opportunities in African agriculture today.
Africa has the largest share of the world’s uncultivated land with rain-fed crop potential. Unlike many other parts of the world, in Africa there is room for agriculture to expand.
Demand exists and is growing, not only for raw, primary produce but also higher-end food products. And there is growing foreign interest in the untapped potential of Africa’s fertile land.
Added to this many African countries are doing well economically with GDP growth rates above five per cent; new oil finds across the continent; and an abundance of mineral wealth. So indeed, we do not lack the resources to support agriculture and agricultural research.
But in order for agriculture to yield the greatest returns for Africa, development efforts must focus on the smallholder farming sector. Small farms account for 80 per cent of all farms in sub-Saharan Africa. In some countries, they contribute up to 90 per cent of production. They have the potential to be key suppliers to Africa’s burgeoning urban markets, as well as supplying rural markets.
The continent has the fastest growing population and the highest rate of urbanization in the world, along with a growing middle class driving demand for better quality produce.
And growth in agriculture equates to a reduction in poverty. It has been estimated that for sub-Saharan Africa, growth generated by agriculture is eleven times more effective in reducing poverty than GDP growth in other sectors.
Successful small farms can create vibrant rural economies with a range of non-farm enterprises, providing a variety of jobs, decent income and food security.
In areas where the terrain and socio-political structure are conducive to larger farms, these too can contribute to greater development, but only if investment is transparent and responsible, and if strong links are forged with the smallholder sector.
With these issues in mind, we must ask ourselves, do we want to get back on the road that we left in the 1970s, or do we need a new road?
I would argue that our approach must be entirely different. We must reposition research and development so that it is research for development. This means measuring our results NOT by higher yields alone but by reduced poverty, improved nutrition, cohesive societies and healthy ecosystems. In short, it must be inclusive.
We must be bold in pushing the frontiers of science, innovation, knowledge and experimentation and not shy away from questioning the logic and sequence of events and processes, even when this means challenging scientific conventional wisdom — we must be open to investigation, to thinking outside of the box.
We must also accept that scientific ideas and discoveries are not the purview of scientists alone.
As scientists, we know the value of observation. Sometimes, those best placed to observe are the people on the ground.
We must also be careful not to get carried away by a desire to always be at the cutting edge of modern technology. Certainly, new breakthroughs have their place in agricultural development.
Agricultural biotechnologies, including Marker Assisted Selection, Marker Assisted Breeding, tissue culture and embryo rescue techniques offer many benefits. They can boost productivity, improve the tolerance of seeds and plants to drought, temperature stress and pests, and make nutrient use more efficient.
But we must recognize that technology is only a tool. It is not an end in itself. As a scientist, I understand the excitement of new discoveries. But as a development practitioner I have seen the miracles that take place when we give farmers the tools to enhance existing – and sometimes quite traditional technologies.
It is true that breeding new crop varieties drove the first Green Revolution but we should not forget that high yielding varieties are only one part of the farming system. Basic farming system research in natural resource management, conservation agriculture or simple agronomic practices are all part of innovation into sustainable intensified production systems.
Often, simply optimizing conventional approaches, such as the use of fertilizers and micro-irrigation, or using trees to improve soil fertility and moisture content, yield dramatic results.
Indeed, there is huge potential to increase yields using low cost and existing technologies.
In Africa, only about 6 per cent of the total cultivated land is irrigated. This compares with 37 per cent in Asia. It is estimated that irrigation alone could increase output by up to 50 per cent in Africa.
Similarly, farmers in sub-Saharan Africa use less than 13 kilogrammes of fertilizer per hectare. In contrast, farmers in the Middle East and North Africa use about 73 kilogrammes, while farmers in East Asia and the Pacific use 190 kilogrammes.
Small increases in fertilizer use in sub-Saharan Africa can produce dramatic improvements in yields. We have seen good results from a fertilizer micro-dosing technique developed by ICRISAT and its partners, using a bottle cap system so farmers can measure out small, affordable amounts of fertilizer. And in addition, greater use of high-yielding seed varieties could have great benefits.
What does all of this tell us? It tells us that what we might call “subsistence agriculture” is basically an under-performing agricultural system.
This is not a challenge. Rather, it is an opportunity. It means we have yet to optimize our agricultural potential by maximizing existing conventional technologies and systems, not to mention the tremendous opportunities waiting to be exploited in unused agricultural land. Africa has the largest share of the world’s uncultivated arable land. This is why foreigners are taking notice.
Let us take advantage of this opportunity and let us not sell off our land blindly.
There are 800 million hectares of uncultivated land with rain-fed crop potential in sub-Saharan Africa, and virtually none in South and East Asia or North Africa.
Simply providing smallholders with fertilizers, improved seed and access to irrigation is half of the equation. The other half of the equation for food and nutrition security includes the right policies, investment in rural infrastructure and access to land and local, national regional markets.
And here I shall emphasize that Africa's research for development does not give enough attention to policy issues and the social dimensions of development. This must change if our goal is for long-term, sustainable, transformational development.
To put it simply, Africa needs a commitment at all levels, involvement of all sectors of our societies — government, the private sector, farmers themselves, NGOs, civil society, and particularly women and young people.
If governments truly want agriculture to have a profound impact on poverty and hunger, they must invest in rural infrastructure. Farmers need processing and safe storage facilities so they are not forced to watch their harvested crops be eaten by pests or spoil in uninsulated sheds.
Today, more than one third of the rural population of sub-Saharan Africa lives five hours from the nearest market town of 5,000 people. Little wonder that it costs 5 times as much to transport a tonne of rice in parts of Central Africa than it does on major routes in Pakistan.
The lack of viable market outlets condemns too many of Africa’s farmers to subsistence agriculture.
Farmers need roads that are not only paved but able to withstand more frequent and extreme weather. They need access to rural financial services so they too can invest in their agricultural businesses. And they need reliable access to electricity and clean water, as well as links to markets and information.
What this means is that for Africa to feed Africa, it is not just the job of the Ministry of Agriculture. It is a whole Government affair: Agriculture, Finance, Planning, Infrastructure, Trade and Industry, to the President itself.
It is critical that our research and development efforts respond to the reality on the ground. For example, about half of sub-Saharan Africa’s agricultural labour force are women. Yet too often women are the most disadvantaged members of rural societies.
To farm successfully, women need agricultural resources and inputs, as well as access to rural finance, education, and knowledge. They also need rights to the land they farm and a voice in the decisions that affect their lives.
Higher productivity and income do not automatically lead to improved nutritional status. A child cannot grow into a healthy adult on a diet of cassava alone. Gari in the morning, eba for lunch and fufu for dinner.
For too long, we have relegated under-nutrition to the intervention level, and left it to the Health Department. Yet prevention is far better and much cheaper than the cure. Helping poor farmers to improve nutrition by diversifying their farming systems and planting household gardens is as important in preventing undernutrition as any intervention. Agriculture for nutrition and growth were themes at the recent pre-G8 meetings.
Science can lead to more nutritious crops, such as Quality Protein Maize, which are widely used by farmers and are reducing malnutrition among adults and babies in developing countries.
Agriculture is not just crops alone, and science can also lead to productive livestock and crop integration, aquaculture and fish-crop farming and ways of generating income through agriculture while also meeting nutritional needs.
With all the attention to climate change and climate-sensitive agriculture, we have a duty to ensure that short-term gains do not deplete the land and the resource base. We need to reverse deforestation and encourage afforestation and reforestation. We need to improve land-management practices such as agro-forestry, and the rehabilitation of degraded crop and pasture land.
And in the years ahead, more research will need to be directed towards agricultural growth that is ecologically sustainable and that provides a diverse range of options, genetic variation and ecosystems so that the land can provide for future generations of farmers.
As I have said on many occasions, development is not something we do for others. Development is something people do for themselves. Our role is to ensure they have the tools they need, and to facilitate and catalyse the process.
And who is better placed to know the conditions on the ground in Africa, and to discover solutions to the challenging conditions in Africa, than African scientists themselves?
But for our scientists to be world class and competitive, they must go beyond the traditional path of acquiring advanced degrees and diplomas from the developed world. They must take their knowledge -- whether acquired abroad or at home – and put it to work.
As I advocate for more investment in research, I also stress that research for the sake of research is wasteful and pointless. Re8search, ultimately, needs to have an application.
Our job – indeed our moral imperative -- is to ensure that research serves the needs not just of agricultural development, but of social and economic development. We must give smallholders the tools they need, and create the conditions for them to be able to benefit from the very real opportunities in agriculture.
All of this boils down to one thing -- a shift in paradigm. We should redefine what we mean by partnership.
What is the role of government? What is the role of civil society, the private sector, NGOs, farmers and the development community? Are we working at cross purposes or adding value to a common agenda? According to some estimates there are over 350 organizations providing development assistance to Africa with a plethora of projects. Today we have Grow Africa, GAFSP and G8 New Alliance. Grow Africa is creating opportunities for the private sector to invest in Africa. We should be sure that the domestic private sector is also part of this partnership.
Our challenge is to take what we know works, to develop what we know is needed, and to apply our knowledge, country-by-country, region-by-region.
If we do this, not only will Africa feed itself, it will contribute to global food security, economic growth, wealth creation, and global peace and stability.
Ladies and gentlemen,
As we look toward the post-2015 development agenda, we must make sure that we do not put agriculture and development into separate silos. We must not forget that agricultural research is a major pillar of a well-grounded agricultural system. Agriculture creates wealth, agriculture creates jobs, agriculture empowers people especially rural women economically and socially. Agriculture mitigates rural-urban migration. Well-fed children enjoy good health and do well in school and aspire to be doctors and Presidents. A cohesive society ensures stability, political stability and national and global peace. Agriculture holds the key to Africa’s development, and development holds the key to a future where Africa is not only feeding itself, but feeding the world.
Accra, July 2013