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Why Africa Needs A Revolution In Food And Agriculture Policies 

By David Akana

Forty years ago, the population of Africa was about 350 million. Today it has more than doubled. The UN Population Fund now estimates the population of Africa at 850 million. While the population of Africa has doubled, investments in agriculture and food production have stagnated.

In some cases, investments have dropped. Rural parts of Africa have experienced little or no investments particularly because African politicians and elites respond mostly to pressures and very little pressure has come from rural areas in the last five decades.
Politicians have relied on the same infrastructure constructed in the 60s and 70s and on the same investment schemes put in place at that time to meet recent food needs.

Conflicts and wars that have devastated farm land and destabilised farmers have further compounded already existing problems of obsolete infrastructures. In 2005, the then Chairman of the African Union, Alpha Omar Konare reminded his peers that Africa had experienced 186 coups and 26 major wars since independence. Farmers have been unable to operate within instability. In addition, arable land has since the dawn of independence degraded at about 72 percent while pasture land has degraded by about 31 percent.

With this has come the natural deficiency of soil nutrient. Slash and burn, a farming method commonly used by farmers across Sub Sahara Africa have rendered top soils infertile and according to some scientists, it may take decades before top soils can regain their natural fertility. While land degradation occurred, thousands of farmers have died particularly as a result of the HIV/Aids pandemic, malaria and other killer diseases. In most rural areas of Africa, men have disappeared from the community – only women are left to produce food to feed homes and families.

According to the book "The African Food Crisis", Africa was self sufficient in food at independence 50 years ago, now, it is a massive food importer. The book further says that in less than 40 years, the sub continent went from being a net exporter of basic food staples to relying on imports and food aid. Between 1966-1970, Africa’s net exports stood at 1.3 million tonnes of food a year. But only by the late 1970s, Africa was importing over 4.4 million tonnes of staple food a year and over 10 million by the late 1980s.

It is not hard to explain these drastic changes. For so long, politicians placed little attention to food and agriculture. Many countries didn’t conduct agriculture policy reviews to match population growth. By so doing, projects created at independence to produce food got obsolete, poor management forced some structures out of business, maintenance policies were absent and very little efforts were made to replace or improve existing infrastructure. The direct result is that, countries that were previously food sufficient started relying on foreign food to feed their populations. These trends have gone on for decades and according to projections, Africa may have real difficulties feeding its people by 2030.


Decades after decades, millions of Africans have silently suffered and died from hunger and malnutrition. Communities have become helpless as their kin and kith slowly surrender their fate to hunger and eventually die. The media too have demonstrated some strange passivity on this topic. National and international agencies involved in food and agriculture have advanced conflicting figures on the number of people dying each year from hunger in Africa.

While the World Food Programme (WFP) has reported that about 25 000 people die every day of hunger worldwide, African politicians have challenged the figures – accusing aid agencies of trying to destabilise their governments. A clear case in point is Zimbabwe where Robert Mugabe’s government vehemently disputed recent reports that cholera was killings hundreds of his country men.

Figures or no figures, it is clear that hundreds of Africans continue to die each day because of lack of food. In Western Sudan, Eastern Chad and Northern Kenya today, thousands of people are perishing because they lack food to eat and water to drink. Malnutrition, the World Food Programme says is killing thousands of Africans each year. Prices of basic food commodities like rice, maize, flour, wheat, millet, milk, oil, groundnut and salt have continued to rise in most African countries as a result of rising food prices.

More people have less money to invest in health, education and energy. Cost of living is rising in urban and rural Africa. Almost every actor on the international scene particularly agencies monitoring progress in the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals now admit that the financial crisis have complicated the achievability of the goals. Gains made in poverty reduction in the past decade may be erased by the worsening food crisis and the current financial crisis.

With growth rates expected to fall these year in Africa to about 3.3 percent down from 6.6 percent in 2008, hunger is likely to increase. Most economies in Africa are expected to contract in 2009 at a rate never seen since World War Two. Cocoa and coffee producing countries are going to see a significant drop in prices in 2009. Donor support is also expected to slow down while private capital flows to Africa are also expected to slow down.

These are not promising indicators for Africa. The size of the challenges requires unprecedented action particularly from African governments. Africa cannot afford to procrastinate – there will be no magic solution. History teaches us that donors cannot completely solve our problems – they should rather complement the efforts we do. The magnitude and severity of the current crises and its anticipated effects demand bold and swift measures in agriculture politics.

Revolution Needed

The use of the word revolution in agriculture in Africa raises hopes for some and fears for others. In the last four decades, Africa experienced a Green Revolution similar to what made Mexico food sufficient in the 50s and 60s. But experts have always differed on the results in Africa. While some experts think the green revolution failed because of corruption, embezzlement, poor infrastructure and weak governance, others argue that it raised food production on the continent.

Whatever anyone thinks of the Green Revolution, Africa needs a fundamental shift in agriculture policies and investments. It begins by increasing the share of budget allocated to agriculture. For example, looking at the 2009 annual budgets of Ghana, Nigeria and Kenya, agriculture features among the top five budget priorities. This is commendable. But as usual, the share of recurrent expenditure is disturbingly higher than the investment portion. The 2009 agriculture budget in Cameroon clearly illustrate this point. Out of about 55 billion allocated to agriculture for 2009, only about 21 billion is planned for investment.

Here is exactly what is wrong with agricultural policies and investments in Africa. A government committed to genuine poverty reduction cannot prioritise bureaucratic expenditure (buying rims of papers, going on missions, purchasing administrative cars) at the expense of farmers and their needs.

Specific policy reviews must be conducted from conceptualisation to implementation of budgets. There are so many programmes that don’t work — requiring complete elimination. Waste of public money is worrisome. Administrative cost must be significantly down sized. Also, agriculture in Africa has suffered in the past not necessarily because of little investment. Rather, mismanagement of funds has deprived the sector of colossal amounts of money. So governments must create strong and enforceable accountability measures.

Furthermore, it does not suffice to increase budgets. What matters is that the money is effectively put at the service of the farmers particularly youths and women. Previously policies targeted mostly men, but with most of them having succumbed to the faith of killer diseases, specific policies must be designed for youths, women and small scale farmers bearing the brunt of feeding families.

For instance, in Ghana, the 2009 budget plans to encourage more than 15 000 youths to join the agricultural sector through training in agri-business and cultivation during dry seasons. Also, governments must dispel public assumptions that youths succeed only by acquiring blue collar jobs. These public perceptions have invariably caused youths to be less involved in agriculture. The multiplier effects of swaying youths into agriculture can be immense particularly in limiting rural exodus.

In addition, the agriculture sector is one of those benefitting from extensive external funding both from bilateral and multilateral groups. Donors must learn lessons of previous programmes in funding future ones. For example, a 14-year project between USAID and the Kenyan Agricultural Research Institute to engineer a virus-resistant sweet potato was a failure. The genetically modified sweet potato failed to show any resistance to the virus while local varieties actually outperformed the GM variety in field trials. Currently, the World Bank, G8, Bill Gates & Melinda Foundation and many other organizations are funding projects in Africa, but these projects must factor in the exact needs of local farmers.

Lastly discussions on food production must go beyond just thinking of how to find high yield seeds and increasing productivity. The food problem in Africa is closely connected to water accessibility, climate change, failure to achieve a trade deal that opens Western markets to African products, lack of credit and even democracy. So, future funding and cooperation must take into account these key factors. Only such a comprehensive strategy can deliver the food required to feed Africans.

So as the continent faces these challenges of historic proportions, it is important that governments adopt strategies and policies that can make a difference. It is usually said that every crisis comes with an opportunity. For Africa, the opportunity of the current food and economic crises is to fundamentally introduce changes in food and agriculture policies for the sake of posterity and a population that is likely to increase to over a billion by 2030. To feed this population would require that the right policies are put in place right now.

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