When food prices soared in 2008 and the availability of food itself became an issue in many countries – including a number in Africa – the world woke up to a major food security crisis. High prices meant that poor people could no longer afford basic food staples. And import restrictions put in place by exporting countries also meant that even countries with the means to buy food at higher prices could no longer be assured of its availability.
Since then, governments have begun to take steps to ensure that their citizens are not faced with a similar food crisis in the future. The international community has also taken measures to promote greater global food security. These efforts were crowned by the L’Aquila Food Security Initiative adopted by the G8 and other world leaders at the G8 Summit in Italy this month. The Initiative promises to mobilize $20 billion in the next three years to help developing countries increase their agricultural production.
As the head of the United Nations agency dedicated to smallholder agriculture and the reduction of rural poverty, I am heartened by the agreement reached in L’Aquila.
Agriculture is the key to food security and a fundamental engine of economic growth and wealth generation. The vast majority of today’s developed countries grew out of strong agricultural foundations, where surplus production generated wealth and prosperity. This is what is happening today in Viet Nam and it is the path that India and China took not so long ago. Smallholder agriculture in particular is key to sustainable growth and equitable wealth generation in the developing world.
African nations will also have to follow a similar path. In order for development to be effective – to lift people out of poverty and ensure food security – it must be underpinned by a sustained effort to develop Africa’s agriculture. Strengthening agriculture is one of the best investments any African country can make today.
This was recognized in 2003, when the member countries of the African Union meeting in Maputo pledged to increase spending on agriculture to at least 10 per cent of national budgets. But so far, although eight countries have met or surpassed it, the continent as a whole has not met this target.
Investment in agriculture in Africa must focus on creating a dynamic smallholder sector. This is because most African countries are still predominantly rural, with smallholder farms responsible for as much as 80 per cent of agricultural production. When smallholder farmers are at the heart of agricultural growth, the impact on a country’s economy and food security can be dramatic.
The impact of such investment on the lives of rural men, women and children is also enormous. I have seen the extraordinary changes that can come about when poor farmers are given the means to improve their lives. When I headed the Africa Rice Center (WARDA), we developed new rice varieties – known as NERICA – that combined the hardiness of native African rice species and the high productivity of Asian rice. As a result, many poor farmers in Africa were able to more than double their yields. With the right investment in agricultural research, new varieties of other food staples can also be developed.
The potential for growth
The organization that I head – the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) – helps developing countries improve the productivity of their smallholder farmers. Nearly 50 per cent of our funding goes to Africa, placing us among the top three multilateral institutions investing in agriculture on the continent. We have seen, time and time again, the potential of smallholder agriculture come to fruition through the programmes and projects we support.
In Nigeria, for example, an IFAD-supported programme is strengthening the cassava value chain by improving the linkages among the various actors of this chain – growers, processors and sellers. This programme is helping to create a system of linked processing facilities that produce a range of cassava derivatives targeting different markets and consumers. Many of the farmers benefiting are poor women who are largely responsible for processing cassava into traditional products such as gari, fufu and tapioca.
Africa has enormous potential for agricultural growth. According to some estimates, the amount of arable land available in sub-Saharan Africa could be increased four- to five-fold with judicious use of irrigation and fertilizer. In Nigeria, the area of land under cultivation could be increased by as much as 100 per cent. And the scope for increase in irrigation in the country is substantial, given that only 7 per cent of irrigable land is now under irrigation.
Partners in development
Since 1985, IFAD has supported nine programmes and projects in Nigeria for a total value of US$187.5 million. These projects invest in agricultural and livestock production, rural community development, rural finance, small-scale irrigation and small enterprise development.
The Government of Nigeria has invited IFAD to participate in its new Commercial Agriculture Development Programme, which aims to strengthen food security, increase employment opportunities and boost agriculture as an engine for broad-based economic growth in the country. We are currently in discussions with the government about our role, which would focus on smallholder farmers and poverty reduction, in keeping with IFAD’s mission.
In its new agriculture programme, Nigeria continues to demonstrate its strong support for the sector, which contributes over 40 per cent to the country’s GDP. It is my hope that Nigeria and other African countries, supported by the international community, will forge ahead with a green revolution for Africa. At IFAD, we are ready to give our full support and to work with African countries to turn this hope into reality.
Kanayo F. Nwanze