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A Green Revolution for Africa

By Gawain Kripke | November 9, 2006

Harvest home, by Mark Bidder, taken near Debre Sina, Ethiopia.

After decades of progress, world hunger rates have been climbing in recent years. About 850 million people across the globe do not have enough to eat. This grim trend is all the more troubling because world leaders and global institutions have repeatedly made commitments to reduce hunger. And yet, we are failing.

In most regions, economic growth and increased agricultural productivity have helped to decrease the number of undernourished people. But in Sub-Saharan Africa, hunger has been on the rise. In 1969-71, 96 million were undernourished in the region. In 2001-03, the UN estimates the figure rose to 213 million.

Much of that hunger can be attributed to military conflict and civil strife. For these challenges, political solutions must be found—and they are desperately needed. But a large portion of Africa’s hunger is caused by a combination of growing poverty, declining agricultural productivity, AIDS, and disinvestment in economic infrastructure.

In recent years, many nations have shifted away from supporting agriculture through foreign aid and government programs. Aid for African agriculture declined 43 percent between 1992 and 2002. U.S. funding for African agricultural development declined by 5 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars between 2000 and 2004, according to an analysis by Resources for the Future and the Partnership to Cut Hunger and Poverty in Africa.

In the meantime, Africa has become more vulnerable to food crises. The number of food emergencies on the continent has nearly tripled since the mid-1980s. Many African countries are growing reliant on food imports—including emergency food aid. Importing food is not inherently bad, but depending on food imports can create imbalances if economic growth and exports do not keep up. And relying on food imports can create food insecurity if food prices spike or supply is disrupted.

To address Africa’s hunger crisis, many development experts have begun calling for a reinvestment in African agriculture. The World Bank and UN Food and Agriculture Organization have called for new attention to the agriculture sector. Major philanthropists like the Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation have made new funding commitments for African agriculture. African heads of state have made agricultural development a priority—committing 10 percent of national budgets to agriculture and eliminating tariffs and taxes on fertilizer.

Some leaders are calling for an African 'green revolution' modeled on the leaps in agricultural productivity accomplished in many Asian countries through the 1960s.

This attention is very encouraging. The evidence suggests investments in agriculture are the best way to reduce poverty and develop African economies. After all, most Africans rely on farming as a livelihood, and poverty in Africa is concentrated among rural populations.

Nevertheless, some caution is warranted. There is a tendency to reduce the problems of African agriculture to one or a handful of crops. Some optimists hope that a new super seed will unleash a new green revolution. But the reality of farming in Africa will require a diverse set of tools and strategies. Much of African agriculture is heterogeneous with a variety of staple crops including maize, yams, sorghum, wheat, rice, cassava and millet. Even individual farms grow an average of more than 10 crops that vary dramatically across regions and environments.

In a similar vein, a significant amount of funding is headed toward developing new technologies, particularly biotech strains that have advantages over existing varieties. The development of drought- and flood-resistant varieties offers promise. But the focus on new technologies runs the risk of diverting resources from the diffusion of much simpler technologies that could make a huge difference in the short-term—such as fertilizer or small-engine tractors. Extension and diffusion, not research and development, are most needed.

Many problems for African agriculture relate to infrastructure and governance, issues that are much broader in scope, but must be addressed in an integrated way to produce agricultural development.

Perhaps the single most powerful force for change is the individual farmer. Serious investment in farmers’ capacity to organize to gain stronger market power will be a major driver for promoting agricultural development. If they are organized, farmers can negotiate with political leaders and hold them accountable, they can implement the development strategies of a green revolution.

Norman Borlaug, widely credited as the driving force behind the first green revolution, recently made the point in at a conference in Washington, D.C. that the strongest advocates for change were farmers who demanded access to the tools that would facilitate greater productivity, higher incomes, and a better life.

Investments in agriculture are long overdue, not simply to address hunger, but also to reduce poverty. Recent World Bank research has shown that agricultural growth helps poor people because poor people are largely rural, and because the sector tends to have higher indirect benefits. This is true for all developing countries, but particularly for the poorest developing countries, including those in Africa.

A variation of this article first appeared in the CSIS Africa Policy Forum.

Read More: Agriculture, Aid, Development, Environment, Food, Health, Poverty, Security, Africa

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