Commonsense Wisdom from African Farmers

Published on 8th June 2012

Farming activity in Africa                                 Photo courtesy
If you want to learn what farmers think (and need), talk to African farmers – not to bureaucrats, environmental activists and politicos at United Nations summits in Durban, Copenhagen or Rio de Janeiro. You’ll get very different, far more honest and thoughtful perspectives.

The recent (May 24) Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN) conference in Pretoria, South Africa brought together delegates from agricultural communities in a large number of African countries. FANRPAN’s primary objective is to improve food security in Africa, by ensuring that small-scale farmers can become more productive.

It was heartening to witness the positive enthusiasm that was evident among the group, and the common sense being spoken.

FANRPAN chair Sindiso Ngwenya of Zambia gave an incisive presentation, pointing out that agriculture is the key to reducing poverty and ensuring food security in Africa. “We call upon the world to assist us,” he added, “not by treating us as beggars, but by treating us as equals.”

Ngwenya criticised many First World attempts to use climate change, biodiversity and sustainable development arguments to prevent African agriculture from advancing. “If you are using implements that were there before Christ, how much chance do you have?” he wanted to know.Why would anyone think these UN-EU-US issues are important to African farmers and families who are trying to feed their families and neighbours, and improve their living standards by exporting their products? 

Africa does not need foreign aid in the form of hand-outs, Ngwenya emphasized. African farmers need modern technology, along with reliable, affordable electricity – and for the world to buy African produce. Instead, far too often, European and other First World countries impose rules or carry out actions that block African exports, using a multitude of excuses, which can no longer be tolerated.

FANRPAN has decided to expand and to go “Africa-wide,” Ngwenya announced. Africa is huge – much larger than the United States, China, India and Europe combined. And yet 60% of its arable land is not used at all. On the arable land that is used in most African countries, crop yields are typically a quarter of the norm in South Africa. What’s needed are modern farming methods, seeds, fertilizers and equipment, he said – and they are needed at the level of every individual farmer.

Referring to the 2011 COP-17 world environment congress in Durban, Ngwenya pointed out that the FANRPAN slogan is “No agriculture, no deal.” However, agriculture, and particularly the advancement of rural African agriculture, was not included in past COP objectives. Many delegates criticised this oversight and said it reflected the First World’s hope that Africa, and African agriculture in particular, will stay primitive and underdeveloped, so that rich countries can applaud this state of affairs as “sustainable” and good for the planet.

Africans are being told by First World activists, politicians and pressure groups to “stay in tune with nature,” to save the planet, delegates agreed – when what this attitude really reflects is a well-fed First World’s manoeuvre to retard the improvement of African agriculture.

When it came to the eternal climate change saga, the FANRPAN delegates offered a sensible approach. They talked of “climate-smart agriculture” and noted that Africa has always experienced dramatic weather and climate variations – so what is needed now is sensible, fact-based science to predict and adapt to local and regional variations in climatic conditions.

That was impressive, as was learning that a group of small-scale farmers from Burkino Faso had paid their own way to attend a meeting in Windhoek, Namibia, nearly 3,000 miles away (4,500 kilometres), to present a petition calling for the development of evidence-based policies, to replace what to now have been emotional, harmful and oppressive policies, rules and treaties.

The delegates said they were tired of the First World telling them what to do, based on First World interests and perceptions. They understand all too well that calls for “sustainable development,” “biodiversity” and climate change “prevention” really mean demands for policies and practices that ensure sustained poverty and malnutrition
FANRPAN CEO Dr. Lindiwe Sibanda emphasized that the real work is done on the ground, at the level of individual countries – and “policy comes from people.” She stressed that individual countries must come to their own conclusions about what works for them, and countries must align their policies to ensure food security for their people. Modern methods and technologies are also required, she said, to enhance intra-Africa food trade and enable countries to export what they are good at producing.

Her enthusiasm was praised by a farmer who spoke from the floor, with a strong French accent. “Thank you for being a very smiling person,” he said. “There’s a lack of resources for small farmers to come here,” even for important meetings like this one, but he was glad he had spent the time and money to be there. Certainly, those that did attend exhibited enough excitement and enthusiasm for the millions who could not join them.

Chairman Ngwenya wrapped up the proceedings by criticising the apparently intentional side-stepping of agricultural issues during COP-17. The First World must stop impeding African farmers and end “the paralysis by analysis.” He is dead right.

There is far too much First World smoke and mirrors telling Africans they are saving the planet – when the real intention is to stop them from acquiring modern technology and electricity that would allow them to surge to middle class or rich country status.

This FANRPAN conference serves notice to the United Nations Environment Programme, Rio+20 Sustainable Development Summit, Europe, United States and other obstructionists that Africa has caught on to what they are doing – and is no longer willing to play their game. That’s good news for every African, Asian, Latin American and other poor family that wants to eat better, live better and have the freedom to pursue their dreams.

By Dr Kelvin Kemm

The author  is a nuclear physicist and Business Strategy Consultant based in Pretoria, South Africa. He is a member of the International Board of Advisors of the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT), based in Washington DC. Dr Kemm has been awarded the prestigious Lifetime Achievers Award of the National Science and Technology Forum of South Africa.

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