Global Policy Forum

“Africa Can Feed the World”

The neglect of sustainable agriculture in Africa must end says Kanayo Nwaze, president of the UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). The Somali famine serves as a warning to African governments and the international community to invest in small-scale farming. Development assistance for agriculture fell from $20 billion (in the 1990s) to $3 billion (in the early 2000s) due to an emphasis shift from agriculture to industrialization. Agriculture accounts for approximately 30% of sub-Saharan Africa’s GPD but represents 80% of export earnings in other countries. Nwaze is confident that diversification, rural investment, the stemming of migration, and reduction in the gap between rural and the urban populations can boost food productivity and generate income for countries in Africa.

By Mark Tran


July 27, 2011

Africa can feed not just itself but the world is a bold assertion to make at a time when famine stalks part of the continent.

But this is precisely the claim made by Kanayo Nwanze, the president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (Ifad), a specialised agency of the UN. Nwanze gave a forceful intervention at Monday's emergency meeting in Rome to discuss the crisis in east Africa, where, according to the UN, an estimated 11.6 million people need humanitarian assistance in Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti.

Nwanze drew a sharp contrast between Gansu province, in northwest China, and parts of Africa that cannot feed itself. He said like many parts of the world, Gansu suffers from frequent drought, limited water for irrigation and severe soil erosion. Yet despite the weather and the harsh environment, the farmers in the Gansu programme area are feeding themselves and increasing their incomes.

"I met one farmer whose income had risen from only $2 (£1.20) a day in 2006 to $35 a day last year," he exclaimed.

So when asked why this could be done in China but not Africa, Nwanze said the vital difference was government policy.

"What I saw in Gansu was the result of government policy to invest in rural areas and to reduce the gap between the rural and the urban and stem migration," he said in a telephone interview. "It has a very harsh environment, it has only 300 millimetres of rain annually, compared to parts of the Sahel which gets 400-600 millimetres, but the government has invested in roads and electricity. We found a community willing to transform their lives by harvesting rainwater, using biogas, terracing mountain slopes. There are crops for livestock, they are growing vegetables, wheat and maize, and generating income that allows them to build resilience."

While Somalia is a worst-case scenario, Nwanze continues, in Ethiopia and Djibouti there has been a lack of long-term investment that makes them vulnerable to climate change. "It is not enough to wait for crisis to turn to disaster to act. The rains will fail again, but governments have not invested in the ability of populations to resist drought."

Nwanze argues that Africa is facing the fallout of decades of neglecting agriculture, a fault that lies with African governments and aid donors.

"There was a shift in paradigm from agriculture to industrialisation," he said. "That's fine, but not to the extent where you neglect food and we are now facing the consequences. Even where farming is practised it's seen as a poor man's occupation. It is not seen as an attractive profession."

The figures back him up. In the mid-1990s, global official development assistance to agriculture reached $20bn before slumping to just $3bn in in the early 2000s. It is slowing rising again, reaching $9bn in 2009. In a recent report, ONE, the advocacy group, gave two reasons for the decline: complacency for the world's food supply after the dramatic improvement in food production in the 1960s and 1970s in Asia and Latin America, and the development doctrine that insisted developing countries dismantle state-owned and state-run enterprises, including agricultural research.

But, after decades of neglect, agriculture is fashionable again in development circles. Jolted by the surge in world food prices in 2009, the G8 group of rich countries and other donors committed to provide $22bn in funding for agriculture and food security. Those donors have some ground to make up to meet those pledges in the agreed three-year period, but agriculture is firmly on the international agenda. In June, G20 agriculture ministers agreed a plan of action in Paris that restated their commitments to the 2009 L'Aquila pledge and cited the importance of small farmers.

Nwanze, who welcomed the plan of action, sees small farmers as Africa's great hope. Agriculture, predominantly on a small scale, accounts for about 30% of sub-Saharan Africa's GDP and at least 40% of export value. In a number of small countries in Africa, agriculture plays an even greater role, representing 80% or more of export earnings.

The Ifad president says Africa could easily increase the use of fertilisers without making a dent on the environment, because current usage is so low. And he cites the potential to increase irrigation – only about 7% of land in the whole of Africa is irrigated, compared with more than 30% of land in Asia – and the scope for farmers to use improved seed varieties that would dramatically boost productivity.

If this seems pie in the sky, Nwanze cites a number of countries that are seeing success by focusing on agriculture – Tanzania, Rwanda and Ghana – whose governments, helped by the private sector, have made a big commitment to farming. "The potential is huge," said Nwanze. "With a little investment, Africa can feed itself and it has the potential to feed the world."

To view a statement by Kanayo Nwanze at the emergency meeting on drought in the Horn of Africa, click here.


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