By ALLAN MUTURI
As the gap widens between the yields of African farms and those in the rest of the world, leading experts and policymakers are warning that weak government support and lack of private capital is stifling farm research innovations that are vital if the African continent is to achieve its ambitious economic growth and development targets.
‘Africa’s crop production is lagging behind the rest of the world, and the gap is widening,’ said Monty Jones, World Food Prize Laureate and Executive Director of the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA). ‘At the same time, we’re seeing a steep decline in global agricultural exports and steep increase in African food imports. It’s a crime that the world’s poorest continent is spending billions of dollars on food imports.’
Today, about one third of the world’s one billion malnourished people live in sub-Saharan Africa, said Jones.
Hosted by FARA, the Second Ministerial Dialogue on Increasing Agricultural Productivity in Africa brings together African ministers of agriculture, science and technology as well as agricultural experts from all over Africa to discuss the status of continent-wide efforts to transform African agriculture and increase farm productivity and how to mobilise the resources needed to support research, extension and education institutions related to agriculture.
‘The continent has great potential and immense natural resources,’ said His Excellency John Kufuor, former President of Ghana, and like Jones, a World Food Prize Laureate. ‘We need policies to transform this sector that holds most of the population to break the logjam of poverty, while engendering growth of the economy. With the right policies in place, Africa has the potential to be the breadbasket of the world, starting with Africa itself.’
Participants raised concerns over the lack of progress by African governments in meeting their commitments to allocate at least 10 percent of their budgets to agriculture, particularly in the areas of research, extension and education.
‘Africa’s sun is rising. Over a dozen countries have maintained strong economic growth over the last few years. National governments are committing more to agriculture,’ said Adewale Adekunle of FARA. ‘But poverty is still a challenge, and the head count for hunger and malnutrition is still the highest in the world.’
Adekunle and other participants noted that an increase in investments in agricultural research, extension and education are critical to turning around the continent’s chronic food insecurity.
‘Transforming African agriculture will require increased support for farm research and agricultural lending at a rate that will promote competitiveness, increase food and nutrition security, reduce poverty, and increase socio-economic development,’ added Adekunle.
The agricultural development framework established by the African Union, known as the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP), is the ideal vehicle for transforming Africa’s agriculture by making it productive and competitive.
‘This will not be possible if governments do not increase investments in line with the 10 percent budget allocation that African heads of state committed to in 2001,’ said Emmanuel Tambi, head of Policy and Advocacy at FARA.
To date, less than a handful of countries in sub-Saharan have reached or exceeded the promise made over a decade ago to allocate at least 10 percent of annual budgets to agriculture.
‘Ministers and parliamentarians are vital to getting this process moving,’ added Tambi.
After a decade of stagnation during the 1990s, investments and human capacity in public agricultural research and development averaged more than 20 percent growth in sub-Saharan Africa between 2001 and 2008, according to the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). In 2008, the region spent $1.7 billion on agricultural research—and employed more than 12,000 full-time agricultural researchers.
Most of this growth, however, occurred in only a handful of countries and was largely the result of increased government commitments to augment incommensurately low salary levels and to rehabilitate neglected infrastructure, often after years of underinvestment.
‘If this trend continues, we will have a hard time finding people with technical expertise in agriculture. This silent brain drain is quietly going on without anyone noticing,’ said Honourable Ernest Debra, Ghana’s former Minister of Agriculture. ‘Countries must prioritise agriculture.’