Building Africa’s Smallholder Farmers Resilience for a Food Secure Future

Towards the end of last month, I attended the 2018 Next Einstein Forum in Kigali, Rwanda. The amount of energy at the Forum was palpable and the number of new working ideas shared by participants inspiring. The icing on the cake, for me, was the representation of young innovative people at the Forum. They showcased their ongoing work to find solutions to the continent’s real-life challenges. By every measure, they are taking charge of their destiny and that of the continent. Seeing them shape tomorrow’s Africa gave me hope; a lot of hope that the future is bright.

Harnessing the youth potential was a key theme of President Paul Kagame’s opening speech. He called on governments, private companies and academic institutions to give talented African tech specialists, scientists and innovators the chance to grow and compete globally.

“Too often, it is assumed that technical expertise is unavailable in Africa. Governments are as guilty as big companies in this regard. We keep going back to the same external suppliers for solutions without making every effort to procure the services that are available here. It doesn’t make sense,” said President Kagame.

He further stated that despite the challenges we still face, there is clear evidence of forward movement and a sense that the moment is ours to seize. “We have what it takes to do so not least because of the growing ranks of smart and creative young people who are the foundation of African future. The critical difference will come from how we all are prepared to give young people a chance and invest in giving them an opportunity to learn,” he added.

The imperative to act is now. The world is advancing rapidly and has become increasingly interconnected that we face the danger of sacrificing the opportunity to grow Africa’s youthful talent for talent that is available globally. That would be the beginning of Africa’s demise.

We have enough lessons to draw from to avoid such an eventuality. Evidence shows that Africa’s key economic sectors including agriculture have historically suffered due to our slow response to global geopolitical dynamics, trade issues and technological advancements at local, regional and international levels. We should not make the same mistake with the youth. A functional youth that is fully engaged in the continent’s economic environment will be a major win. As President Kagame stated, we should give them the right exposure and opportunities.

Seizing the opportunity for sustainable growth goes beyond harnessing the youth potential. It applies to the other sector of the economy too. Working as I do in the agricultural sector and the business of it, I believe that a functional agricultural sector is our surest path to prosperity. This is especially true in a world of changing climatic conditions and related shocks.

It is well established that the number of people in the world is estimated to reach 9.7 billion by 2050, a 33 percent increase. More than half of this increase is expected to occur in Africa. Feeding such a population does not only present a challenge but a major opportunity as well. How we deal with it will be a defining moment for African smallholder farmers and agri-businesses.

With recent studies showing that the global crop production needs to double by 2050 to meet the projected demands from this rising population and dietary shifts, Africa has a chance of becoming the world’s breadbasket. This is especially true as the continent bears more than 60 percent of the global uncultivated arable land, and is still operating far below its potential in the cultivated areas.

It should be noted, however, that this window is fast closing and the continent must move with haste. We should ensure that agriculture is prioritized as a major economic driver and investments are targeted at those that need them most including farmers and the agricultural SMEs that give farmers access to inputs, markets and the supporting services. Additionally, systems that support agriculture transformation should be strengthened as should governments’ capacity to design and implement projects.

Our experience at the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) shows that this reality is possible. For example, the use of technologies including improved and high yielding seed varieties, irrigation and appropriate fertilizer application has increased productivity per unit acreage three-fold in some cases. Fortunately, such technologies are in plenty across the continent with most of them lying on shelves. We need deliberate efforts to drive their deployment.

Buoyed by this evidence, we are now working with our partners to improve the incomes and food security of about 30 million smallholder households in 11 countries over the next five years. This translates to approximately 150 million individuals whose farming reality is transformed from a struggle to survive to a thriving business.

We aim to achieve it by improving farmers’ access to high-yielding seeds that are adapted to local agro-ecological conditions and that have other qualities that farmers desire including pest resistance, high nutritional value and are fast cooking. To this end, we have supported the establishment of over 100 seed companies that have produced over 100MT of high-quality seeds per year, enough for about 15 million farmers since 2006.

We have also worked with African breeders to produce and release over 600 varieties of high-yielding crops. For example, Kenya’s Dr. Jane Ininda has produced 30 varieties of hybrid maize varieties. 15 of these have been commercialized by private seed companies. Through her work, over 60,000 smallholder farmers have received seeds enough for 180,000 hectares.

One other example that comes to mind is Rose Mongi. She grew up fetching firewood to cook beans in her rural Tanzania home. The beans would typically take between 2 and 4 hours depending on the variety which consumed huge amounts of firewood and time. She vowed to breed a variety that cooked faster. Her vision came true in 2011 when she released a bean variety that cooks in just under 30 minutes. As a result, her community require less firewood to cook that is beneficial to the environment. Women and girls also spend less time fetching the firewood and cooking. This means that the girls have more time for their studies while women’s time is freed for other economic ventures.

Jane and Rose are not alone. They are part of the thousands of Africa’s scientists that are finding solutions to local problems. This was at the heart of the Next Einstein Forum.

Furthermore, farmers also have access to appropriate fertilizer technologies that meet the crop and soil specific requirements without overloading the soil with nutrients. Such technologies include urea deep placement, micro-dosing and fertilizer blending that are all contributing to increased productivity. For example, we now have fertilizer blending plants in Uganda, Rwanda and Ethiopia. Many more such plants are coming up in other countries.

Irrigation, mechanization and improved access to financial services are other strategies that are enabling farmers to increase their productivity. We have, for example, seen emerging partnerships between tractor manufacturers, financial institutions and tech companies aimed at giving farmers easier and affordable access to tractors. Concepts like ‘Uber for tractor’ and ‘taxify’ are becoming common.

Farmers are also getting access to structured markets for their surplus produce. Organising farmers into groups has proven successful as it enables them to negotiate fairer prices with contract buyers leading to higher incomes. For example, over the last 10 years, we supported the aggregation of close to 600,000 MT of commodity valued at US$ 177M.

In all these, we have seen that the participation of the private sector, the engagement of the youth and the application of ICT as enablers is critical. Thankfully, all these are on the rise.

In conclusion, I believe that achieving the triple helix of food security, inclusive economic growth and preserving the world will only be achieved through an integrated set of interventions. Fundamentally, smallholder farmers will be at the heart of these interventions. Only when their resilience is built will we get firmly onto the path of prosperity. The discussions at the Next Einstein Forum brought to life the many earth-shaking innovations that are working in Africa and can get accelerate our path to prosperity. As stated by Ousmane Badiane who was my fellow panelist at the session on Feeding the World, Preserving the World at the Forum, the challenge now is to ensure that we have a critical mass of practitioners and technologies for impact at the right scale.

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