Africa can feed itself

Most Africans are farmers, but agricultural production in Africa has over the last two generations declined by 10 percent while it has increased globally by 145 percent.

A book entitled “New Harvest,” based on a study funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and authored by a Kenyan-born Harvard University development expert, has drawn a lot of attention this week as a prescription for reversing this trend.

In the analysis, to be presented at a meeting of East African heads of state, Harvard Professor Calestous Juma says scientific improvements in agriculture, improved infrastructure such as better roads and continuing progress in telecommunications can help Africa feed itself in a generation.

“African agriculture is at the crossroads,” Juma says. “We have come to the end of a century of policies that favored Africa’s export of raw materials and importation of food. Africa is starting to focus on agricultural innovation as its new engine for regional trade and prosperity.”

Technology and modernization is key to powering Africa’s agricultural revolution, Juma says. Here are some of his key recommendations:

  • Use of modern technologies (including modern biotechnology) and investment in geographical sciences for improved natural resource management.
  • Continued expansion of basic infrastructure (telecommunications, transportation, energy, and irrigation).
  • Improved technical education, especially for women and provision of experiential education.
  • Creation of new enterprises, especially in fields such as seed production, farm mechanization, food storage and processing.
  • Harmonization of trading practices that extends regional markets.

Juma told CNN that agricultural transformation would require that Africa shift in focus from exporting raw materials to developing its agriculture sector.

“Seventy percent of employment in Africa comes from agriculture, so you can argue that in Africa agriculture and economy are synonymous,” he said. “In effect, you cannot modernize the economy in Africa without starting with agriculture.”

He says biotechnology, including genetically modified (GM) seeds, will become increasingly important in improving agricultural yields and in mitigating the effects of climate change.

“South Africa, Burkina Faso and Egypt already have GM crops and we expect in the next few years Kenya and Tanzania to follow suit,” said Juma. For more details, here’s the Harvard press release.

Dr Steve Wiggins, a research fellow at a British think-tank the Overseas Development Institute, told the BBC that modest practical changes were preferable to long wish-lists. Most of Juma’s recommendations will require significant financial investment and political commitment to these changes.

“It’s perfectly possible to get Africa on a much higher growth rate but I wouldn’t have such a long list of things to do, particularly if I thought it was going to pre-empt all government investment,” he said. “To make a difference, you don’t need to throw the kitchen sink at the problem.”

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Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.