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 Time to Cultivate Africa’s Agricultural Productivity
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Time to Cultivate Africa’s Agricultural Productivity

 Time to Cultivate Africa’s Agricultural Productivity
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Time to Cultivate Africa’s Agricultural Productivity

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- Daniel Sacks and Jasson Urbach, Dec. 1, 2009 

AS hunger grows in East Africa, the World Food Security Summit convened in Rome this month to talk a lot about government investment in agriculture, but hardly about trade by people. Cynics will say these proclamations from on high do little to help the world’s poor and hungry. Yet, against the odds, African farmers are showing the way.

The evidence is in: Africa’s farmers need less top-down interference, not more. To end world hunger, delegates must accept the solutions that Africa’s farmers are developing on the ground. By reducing the barriers they face, the food crisis can be relieved.

Africa’s agricultural productivity has declined since the 1970s, so the current shortage is hardly surprising. But this is an avoidable tragedy. Regulations and poor infrastructure have hampered the widespread adoption of agricultural innovations that work in the rest of the world. These simple techniques to boost harvests are slowly finding a place in Africa. But all Africa’s small-scale farmers need greater access to the methods that will reliably increase their harvests.

In Fixing Famine, a report based on new fieldwork in Malawi and Kenya, we highlight techniques already making a real difference where circumstances allow: Hybrid and genetically-modified (GM) seeds, greenhouses, drip irrigation and plug seedlings (planting young plants instead of seeds). Today, they are found on only a tiny proportion of Africa’s land — not because farmers are unwilling, but because of petty official restrictions. Four specific policy changes would reverse decades of bad decisions and dramatically improve the lives of Africa’s rural poor.

First, governments must allow the use of GM seeds which can greatly increase crop yields. GM seeds are designed to withstand bad environmental conditions and to survive droughts, disease and insects. By preventing farmers from using these seeds, African governments are depriving them of a proven way to help Africans feed themselves.

Second, governments must remove the restrictions on trade that drive up the prices of even the simplest technologies. In Kenya, a tariff on seedling trays greatly increases the cost of plug seedlings. The trays must be imported, because no manufacturer in Kenya can make them. It is a perverse tax, which restricts Kenyan farmers’ access to essential materials, and it is far from unique.

Third, African governments need to allow ordinary smallholders greater access to credit, to develop their land. That means removing widespread restrictions on property ownership and investment that make it hard to guarantee loans. When farmers can get credit, they can buy high-yielding hybrid seeds, irrigation equipment, pesticides, fertiliser and other technologies, all of which generate a virtuous circle, increasing harvests and decreasing poverty.

Finally, Africa’s governments must acknowledge that bad roads are a major obstacle to agricultural innovation. By admitting their failure, and permitting private investors to work on improving such basic infrastructure, governments will help farmers get crops to market and enable vital equipment and inputs to reach farmers.

With these barriers removed, Africa’s farmers are more than capable of feeding themselves. Malawi’s uptake of hybrid seeds is a strong indicator of a cultural readiness to innovate, where farmers see a positive result of larger crops and greater security against hunger and poverty.

Wherever the barriers have been overcome, Africa’s farmers are already raising their incomes and escaping hunger by adopting these simple new methods — often despite their governments’ efforts. The Longonot farm in Kenya has been selling plug seedlings since 1996, guaranteeing much-improved harvests to those who can afford them.

On average, 80% of plugs can be harvested, while only 20% of seeds typically reach maturity. But bad roads — and the trade barriers on seedling trays — double the cost of the Longonot seedlings to farmers and drastically limit delivery around the country.

Similarly, despite the need for top-down action to improve access to credit, Kenya’s Equity Bank is not waiting around. Its ATM mounted on an off-road truck brings hope and microcredit to the country’s rural poor. Reaching where other banks rarely venture, Equity Bank’s spokeswoman, Esther Muiruri says: “People are talking about the next green revolution. We are hoping that (Equity Bank) can start it here in Kenya.”

In Rome, the Summit will focus on 20 years of underinvestment in agriculture and grand targets to end hunger. But if delegates are serious about beating starvation, they need to think on a smaller scale. The green shoots of better agricultural productivity in Africa must be cultivated, not stifled.
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The writers are the authors of Fixing Famine, published this month by International Policy Network, Londo
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