A new EU-Africa partnership report recommends making agriculture a priority to fight malnutrition, hunger and poverty affecting millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa.
Here’s a quick quiz to test your knowledge of farming and food production in sub-Saharan Africa. Which scenario best reflects the state of farming in Africa today?
• convoys of food trucks besieged by starving masses in Niger
• millions of smallholder farmers struggling to subsist without access to the tools and technologies they need
• fields in Uganda plump with orange fleshed sweet potatoes rich in vitamin A growing so fast farmers can cultivate two plantings a year
• solar powered weather stations in northern Kenya that automatically send insurance payments to farmers over mobile phones when they detect evidence of a drought
The correct answer is all of the above. Each of these situations in their own way reflects the contemporary reality in Africa. In many areas, food production remains incredibly fragile, and the result is visual and heart-wrenching in the malnutrition of millions of children. In other areas, dramatic progress is the overriding feature of the day.
These situations taken together show that African agriculture represents a huge opportunity for wealthy governments in Europe, who last year joined partners in North America at the L’Aquila G8 summit in pledging $22.5bn to fight hunger around the world. After a generation of neglect of agriculture development, they agreed to do this chiefly through agricultural development and, given the overwhelming need, largely in sub-Saharan Africa.
We recently served on a panel of agriculture development experts from Europe and Africa with decades of experience in this area. All of us are eager to see Europe take more decisive and coordinated action to boost agriculture production in Africa. We emerged from our discussions concerned that a dangerous gap is opening up between the big promise of assistance we heard last year and a new flow of investments targeting specific challenges on the ground in Africa.
We understand the difficulty in crafting a coherent, regional approach to boosting food production, particularly when the needs vary so dramatically.
But Europe can move forward quickly and effectively with a large increase in agriculture development assistance for Africa. European leaders also need to recognise that further delay is risky for Africa - and Europe. Europe risks ceding influence to emerging global powerhouses like China and Brazil, which are rapidly ramping up agriculture investments in the region.
A key problem today in sub-Saharan Africa is that deficiencies in agriculture are directly tied to long-entrenched high rates of malnutrition, especially among mothers, children, and infants. The statistics are staggering: 200 million Africans are chronically malnourished; 5 million die of hunger annually; 126 million children are underweight; and half of all children are stunted.
Think about that: every other child in Africa is stunted.
But the situation is far from hopeless, in large part because of the emergence of new, African-led national and regional efforts offering the potential for a homegrown remedy to these nutrition challenges.
For example, African governments understand well that most of their citizens are dependent on farming for food and income. Thus, the only way to make progress in nutrition improvement and poverty reduction is by making agricultural development a priority. Twenty-two countries have signed on to the Comprehensive African Agricultural Development Program (CAADP), which commits signatories to investing 10% of national budgets for improving agricultural productivity. Already, countries are moving rapidly toward this goal, including Rwanda, where 7% of its total spending was in agriculture in 2010, up from 3% in 2005.
Also, in only a few years of operation, the new Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) has steadily pursued efforts focused on tangible accomplishments, like better access to improved seeds and fertilisers in high potential “breadbasket” regions. Maize productivity in western Kenya alone increased 115% last year. In Tanzania, better access to seeds and fertilizers has allowed farmers to produce a surplus even in the midst of drought.
But threats large and small could ruin the exciting potential of these nascent movements. The status quo is not enough because climate change is threatening yields, soil fertility is decreasing, and many fear another rapid rise in food prices. The sudden spike in commodities prices that roiled world markets in 2007 and 2008 added millions more Africans to the ranks of the chronically hungry. Our report urges European governments to use their influence and deep understanding of agriculture markets to create a system of grain reserves, some of which could be established in African countries, to protect against price volatility. These reserves would not be intended for price stabilisation but as an emergency mechanism that could counter a price spike before it quite literally kills people.
We also believe European leaders could scale up effective initiatives, such as those implemented by AGRA, already underway in Africa.
Ultimately, the overall situation today provides considerable reason for optimism. Europe and its G8 partners are offering unprecedented levels of support. African nations are better prepared to make use of agriculture investments than ever before. We need a sense of urgency now to seize the moment before it slips away.
• The Montpellier Panel Report is published today. It provides an overview of the state of European investment in African agriculture as well as a set of recommendations for improving food security and strengthening EU-Africa partnerships in the sector.