The Multi-Functional Future of Agriculture in Africa

Hardly has there been a better display of African leaders’ collaboration on food security than the launch in 2003 of the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Program (CAADP), through which African governments committed to increasing public investment in agriculture by at least 10% of their national budgets. 

Yet only seven governments thus far have fulfilled their pledges. As agricultural development stakeholders and experts convene in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, this week for a conference on “Increasing Agricultural Productivity and Enhancing Food Security in Africa,” this will provide a fresh opportunity to address the multi-functionality of agriculture: Nutritional objectives, rural livelihoods, and climate change mitigation, and adaptation.

These issues need to be framed around the narrative of food sovereignty — the right of local communities to control their food systems. That ultimately calls for African governments to make targeted pro-poor investments that harness the ingenuity of Africa’s small farmers. Through CAADP, African leaders can bring locally-led solutions to the attention of international donors, who will be vital to the effort to scale up the most successful approaches.

I think the Worldwatch Institute's Nourishing the Planet project provides hope that these local innovations can garner the attention of the international community.

"Part of my job with Nourishing the Planet has been to highlight the things that funders and donors don't know about—the innovations that farmer organizations without fancy websites are doing to prevent soil erosion in Mali, the work being done by Prolinnova in Ethiopia to make sure water gets to crops, the market garden projects in Niger that have helped women boost their incomes from $300 per year to more than $1,500,” said Danielle Nierenberg, co-director of the project, which documented agricultural innovations in sub-Saharan Africa. “These innovations are overlooked and they have a lot of potential to be replicated and scaled up all over Africa and beyond into Asia, Latin America, and even the United States.”

CAADP’s first pillar, land and water management, aligns perfectly with agriculture’s role in combating climate change. Rather than blame farmers for climate change, we need to view smallholders as partners in tackling the issue. Agro-ecological approaches that emphasize nutrient cycling and soil health — as opposed to chemical inputs — have the potential to sequester carbon and thus mitigate climate change.

Similarly, locally-led innovations that rely on biodiversity will be essential to ensuring resilience to climate change. Given the possibility of extreme weather events, governments should implement crop insurance policies to protect their most vulnerable farmers.

CAADP’s focus on reducing hunger presents a chance to forge key linkages between agriculture and nutrition. The recent United Nations High Level Meeting on Non-Communicable Diseases brought nutrition and human health into the spotlight, and there is no more cost-effective way to address such issues than by investing in nutrition-enhancing food systems. Linking agriculture and nutrition reduces the need for spending on the medical conditions associated with malnutrition. Yet, nutrition has long been on the backburner of the development agenda, and so African governments need to muster the political will to elevate the issue’s urgency.

African governments will have to invest in rural infrastructure if they are to achieve CAADP’s goal of improving farmers’ accessibility to markets. The danger of government absence in this realm was painfully evident in Ethiopia’s 2003 famine. Through its structural adjustment programs, the World Bank forced Ethiopia to remove public investment in agriculture, saying that it was the private sector's job. Yet, the private sector was too underdeveloped. Despite huge crop yields for Ethiopian farmers in 2002, the country was missing an efficient market to absorb those yields. The lack of storage facilities caused surplus crops to flood the market, driving down prices so low that farmers had to curtail production. No network was in place to transfer crops from productive agricultural regions to less arable areas.

While it’s crucial to have African governments united in the fight against hunger, this by no means suggests that the continent should pursue a one-size-fits-all approach to agricultural development. The 1960s Green Revolution prescribed a packaging of crop technologies in Asia and Latin America, but only the largest farmers and those with access to irrigation were able to reap the benefits. That should provide a cautionary tale to Africa. And since the 1960s, a reductionist focus on high yields as the solution to food insecurity has been far too dominant. Despite huge gains in crop yields in the 20th century, nearly one billion people remain hungry today. That suggests that boosting production and reducing hunger are not so closely correlated.

Instead, Africa needs to embrace a fundamentally different vision for agriculture — one that puts its smallholder farmers at the core and prioritizes the human right to food. It is incumbent upon African governments to invest in agricultural research and extension so that knowledge is disseminated to small farmers. Public sector investment in research is particularly crucial given that some of the necessary agro-ecological strategies — such as planting nitrogen-fixing cover crops — offer no potential financial return for private sector actors.

The vision of locally led agricultural innovations should guide agricultural leaders when they gather in Addis Ababa on Nov. 1-3, and it’s also the vision that should anchor the entire CAADP process.

Photo Credit: CIAT International Center for Tropical Agriculture