Africa can feed not only itself, but the world

Africa can feed not only itself, but the world
Participants of the CARI training- project are threshing rice in Birnin Kebbi, Nigeria, last year. Picture: Thomas Imo/Photothek via Getty Images

Much of the continent’s food perishes before it gets to market, because its farmers are starved of knowledge and of resources. That can change, says Usman Ali Lawan

IN the village of Kura, in Kano State, Nigeria, where I grew up, my grandfather would lose half of his tomatoes after each harvest.

He was not a bad farmer. But bad roads made it difficult for him to get his tomatoes to market, and he had never learned modern methods of preserving them.

To salvage some of his produce, he often dried his tomatoes on the sand.

This is still true of about 80m farmers in Nigeria. Across Sub-Saharan Africa, 50% of harvested fruits and vegetables, 40% of roots and tubers, and 20% of cereals, legumes, and pulses are lost before they reach a market.

Less than a half-mile away from a major tomato-paste factory in Kadawa, Kano, Nigeria, 200 rural farmers dry 40 trailer-loads of fresh tomatoes in the sand every week.

This lack of knowledge and resources contributes substantially to global food insecurity. After all, in the developing world, rural smallholders — most of whom own less than four hectares of farmland — comprise the majority of all farmers.

In fact, rural people produce three-quarters of the world’s food, yet they constitute 80% of the world’s poor.

Delivering enough food to feed the world’s population requires farmers to overcome challenges related to climate change, water scarcity, lack of access to extension services, and armed conflict.

As a result, millions of people have been driven from their homes, prevented from working their fields, unable to get their products to markets, or cut off from supplies of improved seedlings, fertiliser, and financial services.

And the challenges escalate. The number of food emergencies — when disasters such as drought, floods, or war lead to food-supply shortfalls that demand external assistance — has risen from 15 per year, on average, in the 1980s, to more than 30 per year since 2000.

The result is widespread food insecurity. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, 820m people worldwide lacked access to sufficient food in 2017; more than two billion people are deficient in key micronutrients; and more than half of the people living in low-income countries are not sure of their next meal.

If current trends hold, by 2050 the amount of food being grown will feed only half of the world’s population.

But these trends can be changed, and Africa is a good place to start. As Akinwumi Adesina, president of the African Development Bank and winner of the 2017 World Food Prize, has put it,

“Africa, in the future, should not only feed itself, but it must contribute to feeding the world.”

Any strategy to boost food security must increase productivity and reduce post-harvest losses.

To that end, governments and agro-processing companies should be advancing cost-effective measures that take advantage of new technologies, strengthening infrastructure, and offering training and support to rural smallholders.

Africa can feed not only itself, but the world

Governments, through their various agricultural programmes, can help rural farmers to form cooperatives, where they can leverage their collective strength. Private firms, for their part, can provide those farmers with extension services and inputs, and serve as major bulk buyers of produce.

This is a proven approach. In Kebbi State, Nigeria, the Anchor Borrower scheme for the Rice Farmers’ Association of Nigeria — implemented in collaboration with the Central Bank of Nigeria and a government loan programme — has boosted rural farmers’ output and incomes, by helping them to form cooperatives, providing training and inputs, and guaranteeing a buyer.

When designing any such scheme, policymakers must make sure to promote sustainable farming practices that minimise agriculture’s use of natural resources, including soil and water.

All governments should commit to ensuring that their agriculture, food, and nutrition policies are aligned with modern dietary guidelines, which emphasise variety and sustainability in largely plant-based diets.

The international community’s goal of ending hunger by 2030 is achievable. But success will require a commitment from both governments and the private sector to help rural farmers shift to sustainable — and profitable — agricultural practices.

If that happens, then not only will we end food insecurity, but Adesina’s prediction that “the next generation of billionaires in Africa will be farmers” may come closer to being realised.

Usman Ali Lawan, an Aspen New Voices fellow, is CEO and chief ‘farmer in suit’ at USAIFA International Limited. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2019.

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