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A peaceful and food-secure Africa is not just a dream

IFAD President Kanayo F. Nwanze
Dr Kanayo F. Nwanze

An open letter by the International Fund for Agricultural Development‘s President Dr Kanayo F. Nwanze called on African leaders to follow through and deliver on their promises for investing in agriculture. It came just ahead of the 23rd African Union summit that will bring together Africa’s leaders. In the letter, Dr Nwanze says that only seven countries have followed through on the commitment to spend at least 10% of their budgets on agriculture.

Rather than simply publish the letter (read it at the bottom), we sent along a few questions for Dr Nwanze to answer about agriculture on the continent. Here is what he had to say:

Humanosphere: What makes you optimistic about the future of the African continent?

DR Nwanze: Today, there are unprecedented opportunities in African agriculture. Africa has the fastest growing population and the highest rate of urbanization in the world. The middle class is growing across the continent, driving demand for food. As I said in my letter, Africa has land available for cultivation, it has the potential to massively boost food production through investment in agriculture, it has the youngest population on the planet, economic growth rates are strong in many countries. The challenge is to make the growth inclusive – and some countries are already showing the way – in Ethiopia, Ghana, Rwanda, and Togo.

You call for “investments that prioritize rural people,” in your letter. Can you describe some examples of such investments in agriculture by African countries?

Foreign multinationals are aware of Africa’s potential and moving in. This continent, my continent, is rich – rich in human resources and rich in natural potential. There are many examples across Africa, this is what is so promising. Ghana’s agriculture sector – especially cocoa –  is showing impressive growth as supply has responded to policy reforms, which allow a larger pass through of world cocoa prices to producers.

But the key is to invest in rural people – to include them in the process so that they can do their jobs better. Africa imports US$35 billion worth of food every year. Why? This is food that can be and should be grown in Africa by Africans. This is money that should be flowing in to support African businesses, not out. During the 2011 drought and famine in the Horn of Africa, the impact in Ethiopia was limited compared to the horror stories of the 1980s. This was because leadership and government policies addressed macroeconomic issues and ensured investment in drought preparedness and smallholder farmers. Today Ethiopia is the fastest growing non-oil economy in Africa with growth of about 10 per cent, with the second largest floriculture industry in Africa, the largest producer of hides and skin as well as honey in Africa.

How can African leaders work with the private sector to meet their agricultural goals while protecting the interests of rural people?

While it’s true that governments and development partners like IFAD have a responsibility to protect the interests of rural people in the face of powerful private sector actors, it’s also hugely important to work with them to boost their own organizations so they can have a voice in decision-making and increase their negotiating power. At IFAD, we believe that investment in agriculture, if done properly, presents new opportunities for developing countries and in particular for smallholder farmers in these countries. But only if done in a transparent way and with respect to the rule of law. Supporting communities and farmer organizations is key. About 60 per cent of the planet’s available agricultural land is in Africa – a reality that is driving so-called ‘land grabs’. Opportunity draws foreign investors and there is nothing wrong with foreign investment. But it has to be managed for the benefit of all. Our land should be valued as a strategic reserve.  Building on today’s resources with an eye to tomorrow is crucial because Africa’s challenges are getting bigger, as climate change turns up the heat and birth rates on the continent remain high.

You list the power of simple technologies to increase yields. One technology that is debated worldwide is GM seeds and crops. What is your opinion on them?

Small farmers need simple and cost-effective technologies. But let’s be precise with what we mean about technologies. Hybrids are GM crops – the “New Rice for Africa,” (NERICA) for example, is a cross between wild African rice and other domesticated strains. There are many such examples. Biotechnology by itself is a tool. It’s how we use it and implement it that is important. A knife is a knife. You can use it to peel your carrots but you can also use it to kill. The knife is not bad; it’s how you use it.

In many developing countries, subsistence agriculture is widespread and smallholder farmers’ lives depend on seeds. For them, GMO crops are not an intellectual debate, but a decision that affects their survival, their culture and their natural environment. Because if scientists can shorten the growing season of corn by a few weeks; or make sorghum and millet even more drought tolerant; or enable rice to tolerate higher levels of salinity; or prevent insect damage to legume crops; or produce crops that are nutritionally superior, with more protein, more vitamins and fewer toxic elements, then the lives of poor farmers and their families could be enormously improved.

Governance is connected closely to infrastructure, in your letter. Why?

If we want to make Africa’s national and regional markets work and if we want to ensure Africa’s food and economic security, then we must transform our infrastructure and the way we do business. And building infrastructure does not come cheap. It is estimated that it will cost around $38 billion a year to fix Africa’s infrastructure deficit, and another $37 billion for maintenance and operations.  That amount seems daunting until you consider how much money is lost every year through tax evasion and illicit financial flows. It is evident that  this change must come from within. Without good governance, investment in agriculture or any other sector is utterly wasted. Good governance is crucial if we are to move forward.

Kanayo F. Nwanze open letter to African Union heads of state

Judging from the daily outpouring of commentary, opinions and reports, you would think that there were two African continents. One of them is the new land of opportunity, with seven of the world’s 10 fastest-growing economies, offering limitless possibilities to investors. There is, however, this other image: a starving and hopeless continent, hungry and poor, corrupt and prey to foreign exploiters.

As Africans, we are tired of caricatures. But we are also tired of waiting – waiting to be led towards the one Africa we all want, the Africa that can and should be. We know the real Africa, filled with possibilities, dignity and opportunities, able to face its challenges and solve them from within. Never has the time been more right for us finally to realise our full potential. It is within our grasp.

As a scientist, I am always interested in facts. Africa is a land rich in resources, which has enjoyed some of the highest economic growth rates on the planet. It is home to 200 million people between the ages of 15 and 24 (pdf). And it has seen foreign direct investment treble over the past decade.

As the head of an institution whose business is investing in rural people, I know that you also need vision and imagination. At the International Fund for Agricultural Development we have banked on the poorest, most marginalised people in the world, and over and over again these investments have paid off for people and for societies. And more than half the people we invest in are Africans.

Almost 11 years have passed since the Maputo Declaration, in which you, as African leaders, committed yourselves to allocating at least 10% of national budgets to agriculture and rural development – key sectors in the drive to cut poverty, build inclusive growth and strengthen food security and nutrition.

Today, just seven countries have fulfilled the Maputo commitment consistently (pdf), while some others have made steps in the right direction. Eleven years is a long time to wait. I have seen projects turn desert into farmland in less time.

In just a few days, in Malabo at the 23rd African Union summit, I will join those of you, African leaders, who will gather to discuss this year’s topics – agriculture and food security. This is my call: don’t just promise development – deliver it; make it happen now. Make real, concrete progress towards investment that reaches all Africans, investments that prioritise rural people.

Our biggest resource is our people. To squander this is worse than wasteful. If we don’t act now, by 2030 Africa will account for 80% of the world’s poor (pdf). Is this the legacy that we want to leave for future generations?

The AU declared 2014 to be the year of agriculture and food security. And this is the year we look beyond the deadline of the millennium development goals to a post-2015 world with new goals and targets to reach. I hope this means that we will be dedicating ourselves fully to making agriculture a priority. GDP growth due to agriculture has been estimated (pdf) to be five times more effective in reducing poverty than growth in any other sector, and in sub-Saharan Africa, up to 11 times. Paradoxically, it is countries that lack lucrative extractive industries, and which have had to invest in agriculture, that have found out what is now an open secret: agriculture not only improves food security but also creates wealth. Small family farmers in some parts of our continent contribute as much as 80% of food production (pdf). Investing in poor rural people is both good economics and good ethics.

A full 60% of our people depend wholly or partly on agriculture for their livelihoods (pdf), and the vast majority of them live below the poverty line. It’s not pity and handouts that they need. It’s access to markets and finance, land tenure security, knowledge and technology, and policies that favour small farms and make it easier for them to do business. A thriving small farm sector helps rural areas to retain the young people who would otherwise be driven to migrate to overcrowded cities, where they face an uncertain future. Investing in agriculture reinforces not only food security, but also security in general.

In an Africa where 20 states are classified as fragile and 28 countries need food assistance, the need for a real rural transformation backed by investment and not just words is critical – I have often said that declarations don’t feed people.

Investment must be focused on small family farms. Such smallholdings make up 80% of all farms in sub-Saharan Africa. And, contrary to conventional wisdom, small farms are often more productive than large ones. For example, China’s 200 million small farms cover only 10% of the world’s agricultural land but produce 20% of the world’s food (pdf). The average African farm, however, is performing at only about 40% of its potential. Simple technologies – such as improved seeds, irrigation and fertiliser – could treble productivity, triggering transformational growth in the agricultural sector. It is estimated that irrigation alone could increase output by up to 50% in Africa (pdf). Rural areas also need the right kinds of investment in infrastructure – roads, energy, storage facilities, social and financial services – and enabling policies backed by appropriate governance structures that ensure inclusiveness.

If we look at the countries that have met the Maputo commitment, we see that investing in agriculture works. Given that agriculture has become lucrative for private investors, and that about 60% of the planet’s available uncultivated agricultural land is in Africa (pdf), there is no mystery about why we hear of so-called “land grabs”. Opportunity draws foreign investors. There is nothing wrong with foreign investment. But it has to be managed, for the benefit of all.

What is a mystery is why, with such a vast potential and a young population just waiting for a reason to seize it, our African leaders do not announce that they will redouble their efforts to drive an inclusive rural transformation, with concrete commitments, that will make Maputo a reality. I hope that, after the Malabo meeting, that will be a mystery no longer.

African economies have grown impressively. But it is time to stop focusing on GDP figures and instead focus on people. The majority of our people are engaged in agriculture, and the neglect of that sector must stop if we really want to realise the healthy, peaceful and food-secure Africa that we know can be. It is not a dream: it is a responsibility.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]