A Green Revolution for Africa
October 20, 2006
After decades of progress, grim numbers have been recorded in recent years on global hunger. This year, about 850 million people across the world do not have sufficient food. The number has been climbing.
In most regions of the world, economic growth and increased agricultural productivity have helped to drive down the number of undernourished people. But, in Sub-Saharan Africa, hunger has been on the rise. In 1969-71, 96 million were undernourished. In 2001-03, the UN estimates the figure rose to 213 million.
Much of that hunger can be attributed to wars, conflicts, and civil strife. For these challenges, political solutions must be found – and they are desperately needed.
But a large portion of Africa’s hunger is caused by a combination of growing poverty, declining agricultural productivity, AIDS, and disinvestment in economic infrastructure. It has not helped that many aid donors have shifted away from supporting agriculture. Aid for African agriculture has declined by 43 percent between 1990-92 and 2000-02. U.S. funding for African agricultural development declined by 5 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars between 2000 and 2004, according to an analysis by Resources for the Future and the Partnership to Cut Hunger and Poverty in Africa.
In the meantime, Africa has become more vulnerable to food crises. The number of food emergencies has nearly tripled since the mid-1980s. Many African countries are growing reliant on food imports – including emergency food aid. Importing food is not inherently bad, but depending on food imports can create imbalances if economic growth and exports do not keep up. And relying on food imports can create food insecurity if food prices spike or supply is disrupted.
After years of neglect, many development experts have begun calling for a reinvestment in African agriculture to help address the growing hunger and economic vulnerability in the region. Development institutions like the World Bank and UN Food and Agriculture Organization have called for new attention to the agriculture sector. Major philanthropists like the Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation have made new funding commitments for African agriculture. And African heads of state themselves have elevated agricultural development, committing 10 percent of national budgets to agriculture and eliminating tariffs and taxes on fertilizer.
Some leaders are calling for an African “green revolution” modeled on the amazing leaps in agricultural productivity accomplished in many Asian countries through the 1960s.
This attention is very encouraging; and there is strong evidence that investments in agriculture are the best way to reduce poverty and develop African economies. After all, most Africans rely on farming as a livelihood. And poverty in Africa is concentrated among rural populations.
However, even as we welcome the renewed commitments and resources, we must be cautious in our enthusiasm. For one thing, there probably is no silver bullet.
African agriculture is highly heterogeneous, with a variety of staple crops including maize, yams, sorghum, wheat, rice, cassava, millet. Even individual farms grow an average of more than 10 crops that vary dramatically across regions and environments. There is a tendency to reduce the problems of African agriculture to one – or a handful – of crops. Some optimists hope that a new super seed will unleash a new green revolution. But the reality of farming in Africa will require a diverse set of tools and strategies.
In a similar vein, a lot of attention and a significant amount of funding appears destined to be directed toward developing new technologies – particularly developing biotech strains that have advantages over existing varieties. This is not a bad idea – and there is a lot of promise in developing drought and flood resistant varieties. But, this focus on new technologies runs the risk diverting resources from the diffusion of much simpler technologies that could make a huge difference in the short-term. Like fertilizer. Or small-engine tractors. Not a lot of R&D is needed for those technologies, just a lot of extension and diffusion.
Many problems for African agriculture relate to infrastructure and governance – issues that are much broader in scope, but must be addressed in an integrated way to produce agricultural development.
Most importantly, the single most powerful force for change – but often neglected – are the farmers themselves. A necessary ingredient is a serious investment in farmers’ capacity to organize themselves to gain stronger market power, to negotiate with and hold accountable political leaders, and to implement the development strategies of a green revolution.
Norman Borlaug, widely credited as the driving force behind the first “green revolution” recently made the point in at a conference in Washington that the strongest advocates for change were the farmers, organized and demanding access to the tools that would allow them greater productivity, higher incomes, and a better life.
Investments in agriculture are long overdue, not simply to address hunger, but also to reduce poverty. Recent World Bank research underlines the point that agricultural growth helps poor people because poor people are largely rural, but also because the sector tends to have higher indirect benefits. This is true for all developing countries, but particularly for the poorest developing countries, including those in Africa. _____________________________________________________________________
Gawain Kripke is Senior Policy Advisor at Oxfam America in Washington.
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I shall not try to cover the
Submitted by on Mon, 10/30/2006 - 12:33pm.
I shall not try to cover the whole of Gawain’s paper, but rather provide selective comment based on my own experience, particularly on the subject of ‘Collective Marketing.’ This is fresh in my mind after recently addressing the CAPRi Research Workshop on Collective Action and Market Access for Smallholders. CAPRi, the Collective Action and Property Rights program, is a multi-organization initiative of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). The workshop was organized by IFPRI (International Food Policy Research Institute) and CIAT (International Center for Tropical Agriculture), and took place in Cali, Colombia, October 2-5, 2006.
While Gawain makes strong points in favor of increased funding of agriculture, such increases need to be balanced with steps to increase the quality of programmers and projects. It is difficult for development workers like myself to say these things, because it can be displeasing to the clients who fund our projects and give us a livelihood, but at the same time we must feed back something of what we learn to the donor community – ‘the one who pays the piper’.
Despite widespread concern over lack of funding for agriculture, one not infrequently encounters donors seeking to disburse funds with limited regard to the sustainability of the projects they are supporting. This is particularly the case with the organization of producers, a subject to which Gawain mentions Norman Borlaug attaching considerable importance. Support for producer organizations and group enterprises is almost like motherhood, i.e. universally popular among donor agencies and NGOs, and among governments who wish to make an impact in rural areas. Sometimes the results are highly beneficial, but observing the panorama overall, there is considerable waste.
However, the waste is only part of the only problem, because the failure of group enterprises often results in a negative social capital, as people become distrustful and are reluctant to enter into cooperative ventures with their neighbors. This is most evident in the comments African farmers make about cooperatives, which were often the main officially sanctioned agribusiness enterprises in rural enterprises. The problem did not stop with demise of officially-sanctioned cooperatives, but continues as projects and NGOs promote producer organizations within the more liberal policy environment of today.
Since the start of the cooperative movement in the early 19th century, much has been learned about the factors that contribute to the success and failure of group enterprises. Some organizations promoting them learn from these experiences, though others are less careful; in the rush to disburse funds in support of humanitarian objectives, past lessons are often ignored. I can illustrate the problem anecdotally from my recent experience in reviewing a project promoting group enterprises. I suggested that the project should seek to accomplish its food security and marketing objectives by improving home storage by individuals rather than at a group level. One of the people engaged in the project responded that we need to work with groups, “because that is what donors want.”
In the rush towards big pushes inspired by politicians, pop-stars, businessmen and academics, there is a real danger that failures will increase rather than diminish. Funding agencies, actual or prospective, need first to acknowledge that this as a serious hazard, and then look for ways of systematically addressing it.
Part of the solution lies in clarifying objectives. Producer organizations are often seen as part of a strategy of poverty reduction, but it needs to be remembered that the no. 1 objective of any membership organization is to advance the members’ own objectives, which may not only concern poverty reduction. Moreover, outsiders have limited scope to influence the membership of POs, whether they are poor or not-so-poor, because their cohesiveness and sustainability is dependent on members choosing those with whom they will cooperate. POs can do much to reduce poverty, but it needs to be recognized from the outset that they are businesses and obey rules common to any business – for example owners need to put up equity capital and make sacrifices on behalf of the business, rather than join in the hope of obtaining ‘freebies’. Hence, poverty reduction may sometimes be a by-product of the PO as much as the immediate impact.
Another approach that donors and governments can adopt to address this problem is to institute strict peer-review mechanisms on a country basis. Anybody seeking to implement an agricultural marketing initiative should be subject to external review by a party other than the financier, and be required to periodically present the project concerned to assembled peers knowledgeable of the subject in question. Potentially, this could lead to an increase in the quality of development assistance, without much additional expenditure. This may seem like a commonsense recommendation, but when I last made it to a client in an African country, I was told: “it’s a good idea, but there is no constituency for it.” This illustrates an underlying difficulty: that measures exposing players in the aid and development business to public scrutiny will in many cases be forcefully resisted. However, without such open discussion of pros and cons, I find it difficult to see how countries are to going to make rapid progress in this fie.
Apart from this, I would recommend increased emphasis on the “value chain, “as opposed to focusing exclusively on free-standing producer organizations. The value chain will involve a range of players, including producer organizations, trading companies, input and equipment suppliers, processors, distributors, financiers, insurers and others. In some cases players need to engage in simple spot transactions, but often they will need to work together in longer term arrangements involving considerable trust and mutual accountability.
Jonathan Coulter is European Union Advisor to the Uganda Commodity Exchange/Warehouse Receipts System.
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