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Democracy of the stomach must push political will to help Africa feed itself

Tuesday October 26 2010

By Akin Adesina and Wangari Maathai

Africa is rising. The 2010 Ibrahim Index of African Governance reveals good news: 40 of 53 African countries have made significant strides in terms of economic and human development indicators. The Millennium Development Goals Report of the United Nations shows that the agricultural growth rate has become positive, a first in almost 30 years.

Between 1990 and 2005, the proportion of people living on less than $1.25 (Sh100) a day declined from 58 per cent to 51 per cent. The proportion of undernourished people declined from 31 per cent in 1990 to 26 per cent by 2005/7.

Yes, our continent is scoring some major victories, but we are far from winning the war against hunger and poverty. Africa still has 300 million people living on less than $1.25 a day — nearly as many people as are living in the entire United States of America. The vast majority are smallholder farmers, about 70 per cent of whom are women.

Africa’s average staple crop yield is still less than one tonne per hectare, compared to a global average of five tonnes per hectare. For millions of farmers in Africa, accessing basic technologies to help them raise food production is a major challenge.

Farmers should be able to feed their country’s population. In the US, farmers represent only one per cent of the population, but they still feed the nation and generate enough surpluses to feed other people in the world. Yet, in Africa, we see such shocking sights of farmers queuing for food aid. The 70 per cent of our population working in agriculture cannot feed themselves, let alone the 30 per cent that are not in the sector. Many African countries rely on food aid and the continent spends $25 billion (Sh2 trillion) every year importing food.

No politician hoping to become president in America dares ignore the American heartland. President Obama kicked off his historic election in Iowa, the breadbasket of America. But in Africa, politicians count on constituents in rural areas who engage in farming for a living to keep them in office, yet they largely ignore agriculture.

But change is coming. What matters for millions of Africans is the “democracy of the stomach”. The food crisis and social unrest that the continent witnessed during 2007/8, rekindled by the recent food riots in Mozambique in 2010, are tipping points. Political pressure is building as empty stomachs rumble. A growing number of countries is responding. For example, Mali is now spending 11 per cent of its total budget on agriculture, Burkina Faso 15 per cent, and Ethiopia 17 per cent.

However, deeper changes are needed. Agriculture in Africa has for far too long been managed as a development programme. Agriculture is a business and should be seen and supported as such. With 70 per cent of our people engaged in the sector, African agriculture is a potentially very powerful engine of growth that must be kick-started to generate greater domestic income, savings and investment.

As the globe marks World Food Day, we need to ensure the right to food of every African.

Local solutions are working in Africa. Malawi, for example, is now self-sufficient in food production, five years after it faced a major food crisis. It achieved this by significantly increasing government support for its farmers. Malawi fed its 15 million people. It also exported 400,000 tonnes of maize in 2009.

On the rolling hills of Rwanda an agricultural revolution has begun. The plan is bold and the payoffs substantial. Government support to farmers was provided to help them afford needed farm inputs. The result was an agricultural growth rate of 15 per cent in 2009 and national food security. What has brought about these emerging agricultural revolutions? The answer is simple: political will and government support. When leaders do their part, African farmers will deliver.

An African green revolution — one based on political will and country-driven solutions — will help Africa feed itself by raising agricultural productivity in sustainable ways.

Dr Adesina, vice-president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, and Prof Maathai, Nobel Peace Prize winner and environmental and political activist, were recently appointed to the Millennium Development Goals Advocacy Group.