Building more resilient food systems will require a mix of approaches from agroecology to the latest crop and soil science, writes the chair of AGRA.
When Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) was founded in 2006, it was out of a clear, urgent need for leadership in transforming the continent’s agricultural systems. This would deliver increased food and nutrition for all, better incomes for farmers, and resilience for the environment.
Having been there from the start, I can confirm that it was clear from the beginning that the agricultural transformation AGRA was created to spur had to be pursued in a unique way. Critically, it was important that any approach was African-owned and African-led.
Over the years, AGRA has pursued these headline goals, with a mixed bag of success and lessons learned. While there have always been detractors of our approach and success, these voices have become louder, deciding to campaign against our work through the media, despite being offered opportunities and engage directly. And unfortunately, some facts, have been lost in the process.
Let’s start with some facts I hope we can all agree on. Africa’s 33 million smallholder farmers are the beating heart of the food system, growing about 70% of the food we eat every day. Over the last two decades, the African continent has registered the most rapid rate of agricultural production growth of any region of the world. Unfortunately, most of this growth has been through the expansion of agricultural land, not an increase in productivity. With our population expected to double by the middle of the century, our farmers need to continue growing more, while using fewer resources.
There is no question that our food systems need to be transformed if we are to meet this challenge. Since 2006, our work has been focused on this task. Recently we’ve seen links drawn between our work and increasing levels of hunger. AGRA accounts for 1% of funding for African agriculture. We are such a small part of the ecosystem, so to attribute increasing levels of hunger to us is wrong and terribly misleading given it seems to ignore the impact conflict, the pandemic and climate change have on food security.
Disappointingly recent discussions on AGRA’s work have moved to ideological debates, where the solutions for transforming Africa’s food systems come down to one approach over another. Such binary debates are unhelpful and at times counterproductive. Building more resilient food systems on the continent will require a mix of approaches from agroecology to the latest crop and soil science.
Consider this: you can have the healthiest soil in the world, but if it is missing a micronutrient, or the crop variety you are using has limited yield potential, you will be no more productive than the farmer next door with poor soil. The judicious application of nutrients to agricultural soils is an established fact for helping improve soils, so why prohibit Africa’s farmers from doing it?
Another area I would like to correct is our work on seeds. Since 2006, AGRA’s funding has created almost 700 new crop varieties across 18 crops. Many, if not all the varieties were developed by local scientists at national institutions, who were working with local farmers to specifically tackle the challenges they face. Our funding has helped almost 120 entrepreneurs develop or expand their local businesses to ensure these and many other seeds and supplies can get to farmers. As a result, farmers need to travel 10km to get supplies, a decade ago they would travel at least 30km.
The idea that Africa’s seed systems have been overtaken by multinationals is not just wrong but insulting to the hundreds of entrepreneurs running seed local companies working with farmers day-in-day-out.
Since 2006, we have decided to invest in action over debates. Our work has been to ensure we put in place the environment needed to help farmers thrive.
In Ethiopia, for example, we equipped the Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA) with the technical support leading to exemption of duties on selected agricultural machinery, irrigation technologies and animal feed processing machinery, as well as agricultural inputs. The outcome of this support has been increased access to high-quality mechanisation services and technologies by smallholder farmers, with projected increases in yields.
While in Rwanda, AGRA has extensively supported the government’s plan to develop the local seed industry, leading to the country becoming self-sufficient in improved high-yielding maize varieties. Such success may not have been forthcoming without the participation of over 37 scientists trained by AGRA to lead the development of 47 varieties of different crops, among them maize, beans, soybeans, Irish potatoes, sweet potatoes, bananas and more.
And in Kenya, we have seen a rapid rejuvenation of the Kakamega Forest, the country’s only tropical rainforest, through investments in agroecology and other regenerative agriculture strategies. So far, this project has seen over 6,000 hectares of land in the Kakamega-Nandi ecosystem under sustainable land use with plans for replication and scaling for more-encompassing benefits.
These are just three examples of how our work supports local partners, to build on their knowledge while boosting food production and respecting nature.
The task of tackling hunger, malnutrition and climate change requires all of us working together to deliver resilient food systems in the continent. What the continent needs is sustainable agricultural practices that deliver sufficient food. Each of us share this vision and we all can contribute to achieving it.
Ultimately, it is the collaborative efforts of Africa-based organisations like AGRA, governments and other interest groups that will lead to more food and trade opportunities for the continent. I call upon the entire African continent to work together to contribute ideas and lessons to tackle the hunger challenge we face.
Read a response to this piece by members of the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA): Time to change course: The future is in agroecology.