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With sound policies, Africa can feed the world

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With sound policies, Africa can feed the world

In this op-ed Boaz Keizire, Head of policy and Advocacy at Alliance for Green Revolution for Africa (AGRA) and 2017 Aspen New Voices Fellow, details how only the right policies can truly drive agricultural transformation across the continent.

It is nearly one century and a half since man achieved flight and 60 years since he cracked space. Doctors are conducting surgeries that made content for science fiction 40 years ago and humans, in general, are advancing at dizzying speeds. Yet despite splitting the atom and converting the world into a global village, it is amazing that we have not found a solution for the plaguing food insecurity around the world.

It is estimated that 1bn people globally are suffering from starvation and undernutrition, with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations approximating that 239m people in Sub-Saharan Africa go to bed hungry. There are risks that this figure could rise with the population expected to grow to 2bn by 2050, up from the current 1.2bn. And based on the trends of present day Africa food production systems, the continent will only meet 13% of its food needs in 2050.

With these food-poverty levels characterizing the continent, it becomes unflattering to realise that Africa boasts the world’s largest parcel of unused arable land –  202m hectares, according to the World Bank. It is also mind-boggling to note that 61% of Africans work in agriculture, but the sector only accounts for 25% of gross domestic product (GDP), leaving 47.5 % of the continent’s population living on less than $1.25 a day. Curiously, a great majority of this starving population is made up of young individuals, who could be productively used for a radical shift in farm-based productivity.

So, with these resources being readily available, what is stopping Africa from becoming an agriculture-led economic powerhouse?

One of the biggest challenges for the farmers in the continent has been poor access to quality farm inputs. For example, just 20% of Africa’s farmers can access improved varieties of seeds. Other threats to Africa’s agricultural productivity include poor storage systems, lack of transportation services, inadequate processing tools and weak marketing structures, all of which lead to significant wastage.

In Nigeria for instance, the demand for tomatoes is put at 2.2m tonnes while local supply is 0.8m. However, the actual production is 1.5m tonnes of which nearly half, a mind-numbing 0.7m tonnes, is lost post-harvest, leaving the country to spend $1bn every year on tomato paste imports.

Similarly, in Kenya, a significant amount of maize went to waste in 2017 because of poor storage, leading to aflatoxin and pest attacks. And in 2015, the Kenya government destroyed 754,015 bags of maize worth $20m after it was declared unfit for consumption following an extended storage period that saw it stay in stores for seven years.

The two cases present a picture that is replicated in several countries across Africa. Clear cases of hard work with aborted returns. Higher sector returns are further undermined by inadequate market infrastructure, weak institutions and support services, and poor policies.

Back to Kenya, potatoes are the second most important food and cash crop after maize, being grown by approximately 800,000 smallholder farmers. The crop employs 2.7m actors across the channels and contributes over $500m to the Kenyan economy.

But potato farmers are some of the most oppressed and poorly rewarded as far as input-output ratio is concerned. A major thorn in their side is the nature of packaging. Traders prey on the desperation, ignorance and disorganisation of the farmers to force through extended bags weighing between 110 and 280kg for the price of a 50kg sack. This is despite Section 42 of the Agriculture Act 2013, stating that the unit of measure of all agricultural produce is 50kg.  

Thankfully, for potato farmers, there is hope of a better future, with several organisations advocating for favourable policies and structures. The Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), for instance, has collaborated with the Agriculture Council of Kenya (AGCK) to push for the enactment and implementation of the Irish Potato Act, 2018, which will guide the marketing of potatoes in the country. The legislation will require potato farmers to be registered at the county level and collection centres established to open up the markets. The legislation also outlines the packaging and weighing standards of the produce.

Such policies will create order from the chaos in which in which middlemen thrive, as farmers who invest the most in the chain, wallow in poverty.

Similar efforts, if reproduced across the continent, will lead to the strengthening of agriculture as an economic resource that can pull Africa’s millions of poor out of poverty. But to achieve agricultural growth centred around the poor, governments across the continent are required to maintain a bold stance on policy reforms and formulation. Open dialogues between governments, farmers and traders must also take place with the conversations guiding design of public institutions, product grading and standards, plant protection regulations and market ethos.

It is only then that an agricultural transformation that will build social cohesion, drive beneficial continental trade, provide a platform for sustainable exports to the rest of the world, and, most importantly, help create millions of jobs while pulling subsistence farmers out of poverty, will happen.

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