In Ghana last weekend, President Barack Obama highlighted the importance of good governance in building strong societies and underscored the need for agricultural development to trigger economic growth. His words ring true across the continent, where the agriculture sector has languished for decades despite its critical role in food security and the economy.
Seven out of every 10 Africans make their livelihoods through farming. They are smallholders, and they produce the majority of Africa’s food but with minimal resources and little support. Agriculture receives, on average, just 4 to 5 percent of national budgets. And the yields of our smallholder farmers are one quarter the global average.
The main problem is not lack of technology. It is that national governments have not invested enough in basic programs that will turn smallholder farming into a viable economic enterprise. In Africa government accountability means nothing without the provision of comprehensive support to smallholder farmers, most of whom are women.
This includes a wide range of government investments—building grain storage and roads; improving extension services to train farmers; investing in agricultural research; supporting farmers so they can access basic inputs like good seeds and fertilizers; and creating the conditions for new agricultural businesses and markets to grow and trade to flourish.
Why has all this not been done before? One reason is we have not been able to communicate well enough with policy makers or to hold them to the consequences of their decisions or inaction.
However, now there is momentum to do both in Africa with support from our global partners.
We have seen major successes in Africa recently. First, there is Malawi, which dramatically boosted its spending on agriculture and transformed itself from a net food importer to a net food exporter. This change was spurred by a number of government programs, including “smart subsidies” targeted at the poorest farmers and investments in roads, grain storage, and irrigation.
And then there is Tanzania. The Minister of Agriculture Stephen Wassira recently reported that smallholder farmers in the southern highlands have produced a record maize harvest in 2008/2009. This was critical to ensuring food security in a year of serious drought in a large part of the country. Wassira attributed this success in part to its partnership with the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA, whose integrated programs are increasing the availability of good seeds and fertilizers, unlocking affordable credit for farming, and opening new markets for smallholder farmers.
Inspired by such advances, including 7 percent annual national economic growth in Malawi, other African countries are seeking to follow suit. They are guided by Africa’s ambitious Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Program (CAADP. But while political will by Africa’s leaders must be at the heart of our continent’s agricultural transformation, Africa cannot, and need not, go it alone.
Earlier this month at the G8 summit in Italy, the world’s wealthiest countries committed to mobilizing at least $20 billion over the next three years for sustainable agriculture development. The Obama administration, which pushed the proposal, is ready to spend $3 to $4 billion over several years.
The money, according to the G8 declaration, will support local ownership of development. Toward this end, the G8 expressed their support for CAADP and acknowledged the importance of public-private partnerships, particularly AGRA. It encouraged countries and private actors “to join in the common effort towards global food security through a coherent approach.”
This is exactly what sub-Saharan Africa needs—a coherent approach that will make the most of our strengths to overcome the inertia of decades.
AGRA’s approach is to invest in places that have the best chances of successe—the breadbasket regions of Africa. We need to bring together a critical mass of resources that will catalyze change across the agricultural system; build the capacity of farmers’ organizations to work on behalf of their members; and develop high quality, competitive goods. At the same time, we must boost farm incomes across wider and more challenging environments, working to minimize disparity in development and to reward innovation and spread success wherever possible. Across the board, the public and private sectors must work together with full transparency.
One high-potential area with strong partnerships backing growth is northern Ghana, which could become a major producer of high-quality rice—in contrast to the region’s current production of so-called “stone rice” that is full of pebbles. To move from being a net importer to net exporter of rice, Ghana’s farmers need much better crop varieties, land and water management, processing and marketing, and better access to credit. This will aid not only rice farmers, but farmers growing many crops, from cassava to cowpea, often on the same small farms.
Smallholder farmers may be small-scale, but their farm enterprises can still be viable and sustainable. They are Africa’s greatest assets. Now is the time to invest in our farmers, with emphasis on smallholders, implementing coherent strategies that double or quadruple their yields. Only then will the elements of an African Green Revolution begin to take hold, and will Africa become a full partner in the effort to achieve a food secure world.
Dr. Namanga Ngongi is the president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).
Originally published July 18, 2009