Seeds of a smallholder revolution

By Namanga Ngongi

Posted on Thursday, 2 September 2010 08:07

Malawi, Tanzania and Ghana are leading the way for a green

revolution. It is down to the little guys, says Namanga Ngongi,

president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa.

As part of a series of articles for the African Green Revolution Forum taking place in Accra this week, read analysis on why farmers need roads not handouts by Kanayo Nwanze, president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development.

When African heads of state, industry representatives, international donors, civil society groups and organisations like the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) meet this week in Accra at the African Green Revolution Forum, we will not only celebrate progress made towards increased food security, but more importantly we will focus on plans to build on that success quickly and on a much larger scale.

This is urgent because agriculture is Africa’s means to move hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. Three-quarters of Africans rely on farming small plots of land to feed themselves and their families. Helping these smallholder farmers grow more crops and get them to market will have a tremendous impact on reducing hunger, poverty and other associated problems.

African agriculture has fallen far behind that of every other continent, with yields at one-quarter of the global average. If we can undo years of neglect of this critical sector and remove the handicaps and constraints that smallholder farmers face, Africa’s subsistence farming system can be transformed into a viable market-oriented commercial activity and drive development across the continent.

Happy harvests

We are already seeing what Africa can become when we make smart investments in agriculture. Across Africa there is a quiet but steady challenge underway to the continent’s long-standing image of low-productivity subsistence farming and food insecurity.

In Malawi, the government broke with conventional wisdom when it decided to provide smallholder farmers with support. This transformed Malawi from a net food importer to a net food exporter and grew its national economy by at least 7% per year for the last three years. Last year in Tanzania, 700,000 smallholder farmers produced 5m tn of the country’s major staple food – maize. The government attributes this to increased access to inputs through agro-dealers. Rwanda has made major strides in food production in the past three years, with double-digit growth in food crops, as the country embarks on a green revolution programme based on increased access to inputs.

Kenya is making policy changes to allow farmers to shift from subsistence crop production to market-oriented commercial production. Ghana and Mali have put in place policies and programmes that have spurred agricultural productivity, production and economic growth. Indeed, Ghana is likely to be one of the only African country that will meet the Millennium Development Goal to cut hunger and poverty in half by 2015.

This agricultural transformation requires supporting farmers, researchers, seed breeders, soil scientists and agricultural economists. This includes investing in farm inputs and research for new higher-yielding crop varieties that will flourish in Africa’s diverse agro-ecologies. It means improving farmers’ access to credit and markets, and involves promoting a new generation of investment from national governments, multilateral institutions and the private sector. It also means shifting the focus from large-scale to small-scale: from subsistence to market and from men to women who actually produce Africa’s food. But this also means national governments and donor institutions must invest in basic programmes and infrastructure that will turn smallholder farming into a viable economic enterprise.

Looking at greener pastures

Agriculture receives, on average, just 5% of national budgets in African countries. Although a wake-up call was sounded in 2003 when African heads of state met in Maputo and pledged to allocate 10% of their national budgets to agriculture, less than 10 countries have attained that target. The majority are still at less than 5%.

In the early 1970s when Asia was embarking on a green revolution, the countries in that region were devoting some 20% of their national budgets to agriculture. India, even with full grain silos today, is still investing about 15% of its budget on agriculture. Without adequate funding, it will be difficult to attain the growth target of 6% per year set by African heads of state in the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme created in 2003.

Looking ahead, Africa needs massive investments in agriculture. That is because Africa today has a lower density of critical agricultural infrastructure than Asia had in the 1960s. Experts estimate that Africa will need between $32bn and $39bn annually to achieve the full economic potential of its farming sector, not including the cost of climate change adaptation. These funds must come from a combination of sources: African public investment, overseas development assistance, foreign direct investment, philanthropic contributions from within and outside Africa and Africa’s private sector. Africa needs support on a par with investments in Asia and South America in the 1960s and 1970s, when these regions embarked on their agricultural transformations and green revolutions.

Despite all of the challenges facing African farmers, I am optimistic about our future. Africa’s agricultural system can become a model of efficiency, high productivity and sustainable development. Millions of smallholder farmers across Africa are poised to deliver long-term solutions to chronic hunger and poverty. AGRA and other stakeholders must partner together to provide the massive support needed to catalyse an African green revolution that is truly focused on and led by smallholders.

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