Africa can feed itself in a generation. It can do so by harnessing abundant technologies that are available worldwide, expanding internal regional markets and expanding rural infrastructure. But to achieve this, African leaders at the highest level possible will need to take charge of the agenda for agriculture.
The continent cannot afford anymore to listen to well-meaning consultants in affluent countries that still rely on conventional and traditional approaches in dealing with the ongoing crisis. It has sufficient lessons to learn from within Africa and from other countries to draw on.
Many African countries have managed in recent years to design innovative policies and enable institutional changes that help promote agricultural innovation. The courageous leaders of these countries have realized that they should rely on tested pragmatism rather than economic ideology.
For example, the recovery of Rwanda after the genocide focused on reviving agriculture. Malawi has shown that strategic support for farmers can stimulate agriculture within a short period. In both cases decisive high-level leadership on the part of heads of state and the use of existing technologies have played a major role.
These countries have learned that agricultural development can greatly benefit from the global knowledge economy if research conducted in academia, government, civil society, and private industry is effectively applied in the local private sector in accordance with a well-designed regional integration policy.
Yet, the untapped potential of African agriculture becomes striking when comparing it to Asia, which has seen huge increases in agricultural yields in the last 40 years. Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA)’s food production by contrast is actually 10% lower today than it was 1960, while the aggregate world food production has increased by 145% over the same period of time. As a result the continent has become most dependent on food imports and is most vulnerable to fluctuations in world food prices.
The reason for this poor track record is decades of imposed underinvestment in agriculture. The imposition was guided by ideologies that opposed funding to infrastructure and technical training, two critical foundations for agricultural innovation.
For example, fertilizer use is strikingly low—only 13kg per hectare in sub-Saharan Africa compared with 71kg in northern Africa. Only 24% of cereal production uses improved seeds compared with 85% in eastern Asia. The lack of nutrient input has led to a dramatic depletion of soil quality; 75% of farmland in sub-Saharan Africa has been degraded by overuse. Only about 4% of Africa’s crops are irrigated, compared to about 40% in South Asia.
It is therefore important for African leaders to give these problems in agriculture political priority and address them in accordance with the principle of best-practice. This involves efforts to reduce the risks of failure by working together through regional integration bodies to learn from their own successes in other technological fields such as the rapid diffusion of mobile phones.
The combination of new knowledge and technologies with flexible local techniques, resources and experience enables the development of new local products and services, harnesses technological innovation, encourages entrepreneurship, increases agricultural output, creates markets, and improves infrastructure.
Improved measures in food processing and storage can help stabilizing agricultural markets and stimulating rural innovation. For example, pastoral communities routinely lose their cattle when there is drought. This tragedy is unfolding right now in Kenya. Renewable energy sources such as solar or wind power could be used to run communal meat refrigeration facilities. Such innovations will come from increased involvement of engineers in economic matters with the help of other social and natural sciences.
In our book, The New Harvest: Agricultural Innovation in Africa, we stress that Africa should learn from Asian and Latin American pragmatic approaches and avoid ideological approaches to economic policy. The continent should focus on the transformation of agriculture into a force for economic growth. This can best be done by taking advantage of advances in science and technology, the emergence of a new crop of entrepreneurial leaders dedicated to the continent’s economic improvement and the creation of common regional markets that are conducive to economic growth.
Calestous Juma is a native of Kenya and Professor of the Practice of International Development and Director of the Science, Technology, and Globalization Project at Harvard University. He has been elected to the Fellow of the Royal Society and the US National Academy of Sciences. His book, The New Harvest: Agricultural Innovation in Africa was published in early 2011 by Oxford University Press.