Africa: Farming sense

Investing in African agriculture would help poor people to help themselves. The World Bank forecasts that in Africa and the Middle East, the number of “absolute poor” will increase between now and 2015. Nearly 80% of these people live in rural areas. Their options to improve livelihoods are largely restricted to agriculture.

To prevent this from turning into disaster, development aid in sub-Saharan Africa must focus on the rural areas, exploring innovative ways to raise the productivity of poor people’s natural resources and, as a result, generate broad-based, pro-poor economic growth. This may sound like an old story to some, especially those that remember the Green Revolution, but in the noisy debate about issues like corruption, investment and health, it is a basic truth that is all too easily overlooked.

Yes, there are other policy options, such as mineral extraction and tourism, or institution building, which will all contribute towards economic growth as well as generating much-needed foreign exchange and stability. But their impact on actual poverty reduction is limited and rarely manages to improve the livelihoods of the majority of poor people.

Productivity on African farms must be increased. There are some success stories but, on the whole, the situation is bleak. In the past 30 years, Africa has turned from being a food exporter to a net food importer. Crop yields are no higher today than they were in 1980. Africa’s share of world agricultural trade fell from 8% in 1965 to 2.5% in 2004. The main issue facing national governments and multilateral and bilateral donors is essentially how best to achieve significant increases in agricultural productivity. Direct budget support (DBS) is becoming an increasingly popular tool to support developing countries. But is this instrument able to nurture the kinds of new thinking so crucial to revitalising the agricultural sector? The answer is: probably no.

Africa’s small-scale farmers and herders need improved technical agricultural support services, access to a range of input and output markets, improved crop varieties, better storage and distribution facilities and livestock improvement, but realising these changes has proved to be problematic. So how should donors invest their money?

The option of supporting sometimes corrupt, often inept, ministries of agriculture, whose past and current record in this field is weak, looks unpromising. However, devising a private sector/community-based model to provide a range of agricultural support services, such as credit, seeds, fertilizers and veterinary drugs, needs to be piloted and this will not be realised without technical and financial support from donors.

But under the unimaginative DBS funding framework, can innovation of this kind avoid being blunted by bureaucrats, so adept at mismanaging their own resources? The fact is, there is a link between the decline in investment specifically in agriculture and a decline in performance of the sector. There are other contributing factors, but direct budget support has not helped the cause of farmers.

In contrast, local initiatives can work. Consider the case of Ugandan widow Nanyoni Sharifa. At 44, she is just one example of someone whose life has changed beyond recognition, because money was invested locally. Ms Sharifa is a cassava grower who has seen yields fall from eight tonnes to one tonne per acre since the early 1990s as a result of the cassava mosaic virus.

Two years ago she joined the farmers association in Nakasongola, which had just won a $57,000 grant from the Maendeleo Agricultural Technology Fund to test out new varieties of cassava.

They set to work on farmer field trials, and hit on two or three varieties that were particularly productive. Surplus yields for the 500 farmers led them to chip, dry and grind cassava to produce flour for bread, biscuits, doughnuts and cement!

The project so impressed the Japanese International Cooperation Agency, an official government body, that it has just invested $40,000 into a processing plant close to the village. Now Nanyoni Sharifa is a member of the executive committee, motivating villagers to grow cassava to supply the plant.

“Before the project, there was often famine because of the diseased cassava plants but now everyone has enough food. We can also afford to pay for secondary school fees and medical bills,” she said.

True, the project is small-scale, but it illustrates a key point in the debate about development–the need to transfer knowledge and expertise where it is needed most: in the rural areas where most people in Africa live.

The Maendeleo Agricultural Technology Fund, set up by the Gatsby Charitable Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation, is managed by FARM-Africa and has an annual budget of nearly $2 million to make agricultural technologies accessible to farmers in east Africa. It is a pioneering model achieving quantifiable success, but there is an urgent need for more of this type of funding to develop the work further.

Invest at the grass roots in existing activities and growth will follow–only then will we stem the tide of rural migrants flooding into urban slums, and bring about equity and social justice so deserved by the rural poor. And only then will the over-reliance on food aid and unreliable government budgets be halted.

Everyone in poverty relief cites the fact that over a billion people live on less than a dollar a day. But while debates about trade reform are pertinent, they tend to focus on African elites. They end up ignoring the vast majority of people who live on less than a dollar a day and beyond the reach of services and infrastructure.

By all means support African governments to change and develop, but industrial nations need to balance that by offering real support to community-based organisations on the ground, too. It is only then that progress can be made. Work with what people have and help them to help themselves.

*Dr Christie Peacock is the Chief Executive of FARM-Africa, an international NGO working with farmers and herders in eastern and southern Africa. It aims to make a lasting difference to peoples’ lives by providing practical help, enabling them to produce more food for their families.


Conway, Gordon (1999), The Doubly Green Revolution: Food for All in the 21st Century, Cornell University Press, New York.

©OECD Observer No 249, May 2005

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