Kofi Annan, the former United Nations secretary-general says that although reversing the decline of Africa’s agriculture is tough, it is "doable." Six months after he left the UN, Mr Annan is to head Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (Agra), an organisation set up by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to transform the productivity of Africa’s millions of small farmers through water management, access to markets, improving irrigation and soil health, and backing development of new seed systems.
The alliance, modeled on the "green revolution" that helped transform productivity in Asia and Central America more than a generation ago, was founded last year with an initial $150m from the Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation.
Sub-Saharan Africa is the only region in the world where per capita food production has steadily decreased. It has 16 of the 18 least nourished countries in the world. In an interview with the Financial Times, Mr Annan acknowledged Africa had failed to overhaul its agriculture. "Often these policies are discussed at the capitals and they don’t penetrate downwards as effectively as they could," he said.
It is however not enough to focus on how policy discussed at the capitals will reach down to populations at the grassroots, but rather formulating the policy from the grassroots.
Mr Annan’s team may have to shelve the sophisticated approach momentarily, go to the grassroots and reverse the prevailing mentality that agriculture is meant for retirees and those with nothing to do. This has contributed to educated people abandoning agriculture. The team ought to contend with the colonial order that demonized indigenous crops and food stuffs but glorified exotic foodstuffs. Under this pattern, various parts of Africa were allocated specific cash crops (such as cotton, rubber, tea, sisal) to produce, consequently upsetting the food balance in the regions and making Africa to produce what it doesn’t consume and consume what it doesn’t produce. Surrounded by a sea of cassava or banana’s, several countries still claim they are hungry when they are short of say maize.
Annan’s team ought to urge African nations to open themselves up to each other to facilitate movement of food. When Niger was faced with chronic food shortage, her neighbors were bathing in plenty. All that was needed was to open up the border and let food in. The continent’s transport infrastructure ought to be built and streamlined.
As Annan heads Agra, it will remain to be seen how he balances the tightrope of making Africa food sufficient on one hand and appeasing eco-imperialists opposed to modern food production technologies on the other. Africa is caught in the middle of this war. Pressurized by eco-imperialists for example, the Zambian agricultural minister in 2002 stated that he would rather have his country starve than receive GM food. Zambia was facing one of the worst droughts in recorded history of the region. When there were food shortages in southern Africa two years ago, several countries rejected UN donations of genetically modified grain on the grounds that if they accepted, it they might not be able to export food products to Europe.
Annan’s team ought to push rural populations to adopt business thinking with a view of spurring productivity. This can be achieved by adding value to traditional methods of tillage by adopting limited tillage techniques that ensure moisture retention in the soil, save the farmer from back-breaking labour and avoid waste of time.
Food scarcity will always ensure that Africa competes at the bottom indices of human development. The continent must therefore deliberately embrace new techniques of productivity and ensure that the techniques adhere to internationally accepted standards of stewardship. A hungry population will never position Africa in the global market.
By Josephat Juma
Mr. Juma is an African Executive Writer
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