Science can help smallholder farmers feed Africa #aasw6

by Clement Kofi Humado and Kanayo F. Nwanze

Grace peeling cassava and plantain
to use in the local food in Asueyi.
©IFAD/Fabiana Formica
Agricultural development is essential if Africa is going to feed itself and reduce poverty, which we believe it can. It is also central to achieving other priorities, including economic and industrial growth to provide jobs for young people, and promote political stability. Science can help deliver on these long-term national and regional goals, but only if it receives proper support—especially within Africa itself. Some steps have been made, but more needs to be done and done quickly.

While spending on agricultural research in sub-Saharan Africa grew by 20% between 2001 and 2008, most of that growth was in just a few countries. Only 8 of 31 countries have met the target for agricultural R&D investment of 1% of GDP, which was set at the 2004 AU Summit in Khartoum, Sudan.

The Sixth Africa Agriculture Science Week and the General Assembly of the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA) taking place in Accra draws attention once again to the benefits that agricultural science and innovation can deliver. The development of a Science Agenda for Agriculture in Africa under the auspices of FARA, a process that is Africa-owned and Africa-led, is an important step toward improving the transfer of the outcomes of scientific research to end-users.

It has been estimated that for sub-Saharan Africa, growth generated by agriculture is eleven times more effective in reducing poverty than GDP growth in other sectors. Agriculture can drive African development forward, and science can drive agriculture toward greater productivity, better nutrition and improved sustainability.

The need is urgent. Africa has the fastest growing population and the highest rate of urbanization in the world, along with a growing middle class. A productive and efficient food and agricultural sector are essential for sustainable economic growth, food and nutrition security, and stable communities and nations. Africa’s potential is enormous: the continent has the largest share of the world’s uncultivated land with rain-fed crop potential, underutilized water resources, a developing middle-class market for value-added food products and an underexploited intra- regional trade. Unlike many other parts of the world, in Africa there is room for agriculture to expand.

But it is also a continent of small farms, and to get the maximum returns, development efforts must focus on this sector. Small farms account for 80 per cent of all farms in sub-Saharan Africa. In some countries, they contribute up to 90 per cent of production. Without them we cannot meet the growing demand for food, nor lift millions of Africans out of poverty and hunger.

Peeling and washing cassava on
Josma Agro Ind. Ltd. Mampong, Ghana.
"We plant our own cassava and also
buy from other people".
©IFAD/Nana Kofi Acquah

Ghana’s support for the cassava sector is a good example of how science and agricultural development can work hand in hand to empower the smallholder farmer of Africa to reduce hunger and poverty. The first phase of the IFAD-supported Root and Tuber Improvement Programme which began in 1999, targeted the development, testing, multiplication and distribution of new varieties of roots and tubers, mainly cassava. The new varieties had faster growth, better taste and higher yield. Today,  cassava, once considered a subsistence crop of the poor, has been transformed into a cash crop producing enormous profits along the value chain, including small farmers, who are themselves part of the private sector. Better linkages with markets can enable them to realize higher incomes and enhanced livelihoods. Currently the Roots and Tubers Improvement and Marketing Programme is proving that cassava can generate income for processing enterprises as well as millions of farmers, the majority of whom are women and youths. Uganda presents another success story, where the introduction of cassava varieties resistant to cassava mosaic virus (CMV) have resulted in an average yield increase of 10 tonnes per ha .Science can also produce more nutritious crops, such as Quality Protein Maize, which has been widely used by farmers and is reducing malnutrition in developing countries. NERICA rice (New Rice for Africa) is helping reduce rice imports  across many countries in Africa and helping poor farmers increase incomes.

These examples show how science and research can stimulate agricultural modernization and attract private investment in agricultural value chains that are profitable, generate employment and incomes, and diversify smallholders’ livelihoods while making them more resilient to climate change and market price fluctuations. Successful technology development has made cassava an economic and strategic crop with multiple uses: as food, industrial starch, sorbitol for brewer's yeast, biofuel, glue, animal feed, and many others yet to be exploited by African agricultural research and development.This success story tells us another lesson: that research and development are most effective when they focus on primary concerns of their users. Technologies are only going to be adopted when agricultural businesses see their benefits, such as increased productivity, profits and resilience, or reduced production and marketing risks. Sustainable development means making our enterprises, including small farms, more productive and competitive.

But scientific innovation alone is not enough; getting the innovative technologies and approaches into the hands of farmers is key, hence the role of agricultural extension services must be strengthened. Coordination both nationally and regionally is important to develop and to transmit research—putting scientific advances to work on the ground. The private sector also has a key role to play in the growth of agriculture and the many related benefits for poor rural people and communities. That is why there is a loud cry now for productive and beneficial public-private partnerships to develop agriculture in a socially inclusive manner.

To ensure a sustainable food supply for a global population that will surpass 9 billion by 2050, more research will need to be directed towards agricultural growth that is ecologically sustainable, conserves biodiversity and ecosystems, and ensures that the land will be able to provide for future generations. As we look toward the post-2015 development agenda, clearly food and agriculture must have a central place, as they are vital to transforming rural areas. Therefore, let the celebration of the “6th Africa Agriculture Science Week” be a wake up call for African Governments, global partners, policymakers, research and science administrators, producer organizations and agribusiness entrepreneurs to embrace the Science Agenda, and to take action to enable science to play its part in developing agriculture to feed Africa and the world.

Originally posted on AllAfrica

The authors are: Clement Kofi Humado, Minister for Food and Agriculture, Republic of Ghana and Kanayo F. Nwanze, President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), an international financial institution and a specialized United Nations agency based in Rome, Italy.