By AGRA Content Hub

By Frank N. J. Braeken, Formerly Unilever’s Regional Director for Africa and Member of the Board of AGRA

As we look forward to celebrating World Soil Day, we have an opportunity to consider the extraordinary challenge which Africa faces, namely the urgent need to increase food production. The African population is growing by 2.7% every year. This is twice the population of the Netherlands, which means another 1.2 billion people to be fed by 2050.

In a continent where the majority of the population depend on agriculture and where the average farm is less than half a hectare in size, any solution must start with small farmers. This was why AGRA, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, was founded. Essentially, AGRA aims to offer solutions reflecting the small-scale reality which affects so many potential farmers. The organisation is looking for solutions which do not merely pull small farmers out of poverty but also ensure they produce enough to contribute to solving the ever-greater food issue, which is an enormous challenge.

Some think introducing large-scale agriculture could offer the answer, as with the Common Agricultural Policy in Europe; but the social, ecological and economic reality in Africa compels us to find alternative, more suitable solutions. Large-scale agribusinesses may be more productive, but they offer no solution to the poverty or economic isolation of the African rural population.

An important part of the solution lies in using better technology. Take seed technology, for example. It is regrettable how far Africa has lagged behind in developing hybrid seeds. This has had an enormous impact. Not only is the yield per hectare low, the crops are highly vulnerable to a variety of shocks, for example pests, and the increasingly unpredictable climate is a major problem. This is the reason why AGRA has put great efforts into developing new seeds – not through big multinationals, but via local businesses involved directly in production and distribution. The organisation’s work has resulted in more than 110 African seed companies being set up and growing, benefiting 20 million farmers. Countries such as Ghana and Mali that in the past did not have any seed companies, now have six on average. These efforts have also led to a network of 30,000 agricultural entrepreneurs serving farmers where no such entrepreneurs existed before.

The solution is not just about promoting technology. Farmers also need information and direct advice and assistance, and there is no simple solution here. AGRA’s approach is to train advisers at the village level. Some 30,000 village based advisers have been trained in the last two years, supporting around 6.2 small farmers directly. This program has been so successful that some advisers have set up their own businesses selling seed and providing advice, giving small farmers lasting access to better agricultural technology.

Other needs the organisation is working on are improving soil fertility, accessing markets and credit facilities, strong reliable farmers’ organisations and supporting the development of agricultural policies that support small holder farmers, agribusinesses and the development and use of technologies at the farm level AGRA is now devoting more and more attention and resources to stimulating an active agricultural policy and mobilising political support for governments to make the budgetary efforts required. So far, only seven African countries have achieved their own aim of investing 10% of their national budget in agriculture.

As an organization, AGRA has ambitious aims. We hoped to have reached 30 million farmers by 2021, but we are not there yet. Finding and adapting solutions that work in a local context across our 11 countries, and creating a strong political support base, is taking more time and energy than we expected. Climate change has destabilised local markets faster than anyone could have foreseen and is destroying the means of existence for those who are least responsible for these changes; and COVID-19 is having far-reaching and unexpected effects on economies in Africa and around the world.

Putting an end to hunger in Africa is not simple and there are no simple or perfect solutions. Being small-scale, with the poverty that accompanies it, is neither romantic nor a philosophical issue: it is a harsh, daily reality for millions of farmers who are entitled to the same opportunities as European and North American farmers had many years ago. African farmers deserve the same opportunities enjoyed by farmers in Europe and North America. They do not want to be stuck with 40-year-old seed varieties. When given the chance, we have seen adoption rates of 90% of new seeds in countries like Nigeria and Burkina Faso. But we must also recognize that major investment is required – we estimate it will take US D 40 billion to reform agriculture in Africa.

AGRA is now entering our next, strategic phase. Much has been learned in recent years, from both our own and other programs, and we must keep on building on that. My greatest hope is that the perfect does not become the enemy of the good and that AGRA gets the broad political and collective support it deserves and needs. We have no time to lose.