Priorities for agricultural development in Africa

Climate & Natural resources,Food Security03 Nov 2010Eric Smaling

We were not able to agree in Copenhagen, the FAO Summit after the 2008 food crisis did not get us anywhere either, and yet the conference ‘It’s Down 2 Earth’ thinks we should look at agriculture and climate change in an integrated fashion!? Why choose the easy way when you can just as well choose the difficult one? I’m joking. If the conference manages to come up with some good thinking, practical suggestions and a basket of options and success cases, it may well serve its purpose.

Four suggestions are given here that serve both purposes for Africa.

  1. Safety net. Food aid and emergency aid in general has become structural. It is needed every year, and the increasing frequency of extreme weather events, combined with further population growth, will cause this need to grow further. So build a safety net with the World Food Programme and others, looking at both surplus and deficiency areas. Build sufficient warehouses for buffer stocks, and pay farmers a guaranteed price so that they are encouraged to produce well. Improve the quality and use of satellite imagery and early warning systems, and make an infrastructure plan.
  2. Value chain. Stop talking about ‘agriculture’ in its narrow sense, but think in terms of chains and cycles. Help farmers to get better organized, and expose the weak spots in the value chain, for example post-harvest losses and waste management. Invest in the weak spots to improve effectiveness. Improve market information systems, also through radio and texting services, and include weather forecasts. Reason from the vantage point of the demand-supply interplay, at the household and at market levels.
  3. Regional trade. The agricultural trade discussion focuses largely on the global scale. For Africa, this is still of limited importance. A largely forgotten level is regional trade, which could offer many benefits. It also allows easier use of safety nets in case of hunger. Support is needed for trade areas such as the East African Community or the Economic Community of West African States to build a common internal market, somehow along the lines of the European agricultural policy.
  4. Capacity. Clearly, investments are needed crop varieties that show tolerance against drought, salt and low fertility. Also investment is needed in leguminous species that can stand semi-arid weather conditions well, such as cowpea and pigeon pea, which increasingly become cash crops. Concentrate knowledge effectively. Make sure that not all 50+ sub-Saharan African countries do the same R&D with the few means they have. Build an MSc programme with African universities, not on agriculture, but on agri-business.