The criticality of the agricultural sector to the economic transformation of Africa and the East African region cannot be gainsaid. It is fitting that the region is participating in the food systems summit discussions that are being held as a prelude to the big UN Summit on the same in New York next month.
While discussions about foregrounding agricultural development, investing more in the agricultural value chain and ensuring that farming is done in a sustainable manner are not new, the unhappy fact is that the resolve to execute on commitments that have been made – like the 2014 Malabo agreement under which African governments agreed to commit at least 10 per cent of their national budgets to agriculture – are yet to be met almost two decades since.
During last Thursday’s Nation Leadership Forum, Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) President Agnes Kalibata was passionate that investments must be made in agriculture to ensure the systems that support agricultural transformation work efficiently.
The smallholder farmer, that most central cog in Africa’s agricultural wheel, must have access to improved inputs (seeds, fertilizers, extension services for improved agronomic practices and post-harvest management), access to inclusive finance and to markets.
All these can only exist sustainably within progressive and robust policy environments, which is where governments come in, with technical support from partners.
Discussants highlighted that increasingly, climate change and its impact (and mitigation) has become massively important. As Agriculture PS Hamadi Boga said and AGRA experts Nega Wubeneh and Tilahun Amede reiterated, climate change, in part negatively exacerbated by necessary agricultural practices, has triggered changes in weather patterns and caused drought conditions. Incidents of locusts and army worm invasions that ravage growing crops and reduce or completely undermine harvests are now rife.
This calls for shifts in farming practices. Farmers must stop one-crop cultivation systems and diversify. They need to keep animals, plant multi-purpose trees, store water, make and use compost and do rotational farming even on small pieces of land.
AGRA has, for example, been actively supporting promotion of crops such as beans, teff, soybeans, sorghum, cassava, etc. as a complement to the popular maize staple. Farmers can value add by growing trees on which they can keep beehives. Doing this will protect the trees.
Prof Boga spoke to the successes that the government is having in ensuring there is food and that despite the pressure and unexpected crises like the Covid-19 pandemic, the food system has been resilient. This was achieved by ensuring that obstacles that hampered the free flow of food between borders are removed because food safety is a key factor in building resilience.
Useful food is wholesome food, not contaminated food, to quote agricultural lobbyist Prof Ruth Oniango, who called for greater efforts to eliminate unnecessary tariffs and non-tariff barriers.
So, the issues being canvassed at the Nation Leadership Forum were not new. But they need constant repeating until the African smallholder farmer enjoys the full opportunities that their counterparts in other parts of the world are enjoying. They must increase yields from the land sizes that they are cultivating even as they seek to expand those sizes.
At the end of the forum the farmers passed a declaration that simply is a reminder to governments and partners to do the right thing. They are asking for a recasting of priorities to address the basic concerns of building resilient food systems that shift the attention of populations away from the preoccupation to survive to the very urgent challenge of growth and development.
Agri-business presents Africa with a truly low-hanging opportunity as agriculture and agribusiness are projected to be a US$ 1 trillion industry in sub-Saharan Africa by 2030. This is huge and should be at the top of the agenda for economic transformation and development.
The farmers are also subtly reminding their governments that hungry citizens are dangerous citizens as they can be a source of insecurity. Governments would do well to listen. Just as they should to Dr Kalibata’s exhortation that now is the time to build back better by governments and development partners doubling down to ensure that Africa’s small-scale farmers enjoy equity to achieve better growth outcomes and ensure better lives and opportunities for women and youth.
The writer is a former Editor-in-Chief of Nation Media Group and is now consulting. firstname.lastname@example.org, @tmshindi