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My Wish for the Agriculture Sector in Africa

Mamadou Biteye - Former Managing Director, Africa Regional Office, The Rockefeller Foundation

Next week, I and a few colleagues will attend the African Green Revolution Forum (AGRF) in Kigali, Rwanda. AGRF is an opportunity to reexamine and reflect on Africa’s agriculture sector in the presence of respected and esteemed colleagues. This year’s theme will facilitate a review of leadership in the sector, how we are measuring growth, and overall, if we are growing at all.

I aspire to come away with plenty of affirmation for what has and continues to be my personal vision for Africa’s agriculture sector. Personal because over and above my career in development, I come from a farming community, and have practiced farming myself. I have had both distinct pleasures of working for organizations and having positions that enable me to make a contribution to the sector, as well as to see first-hand—beyond the data and statistics and news and events and new ventures and partnerships—what does and does not work, and how that affects everyday people.

While we know that agriculture is the economic backbone of most nations across Africa, food insecurity remains a significant problem. Food insecurity exists when people lack sustainable physical or economic access to enough safe and nutritious food for a healthy and productive life.

Key Figures

  • Food insecurity and malnutrition lead to high levels of human suffering: the World Health Organization estimates that approximately 60 percent of all childhood deaths in the developing world are associated with hunger and malnutrition.
  • According to the African Development Bank, untapped agricultural potential has contributed to persistent poverty and deteriorating food security, and it is projected that this will cause an increase in the number of undernourished people from ~240m in 2015 to ~320m by 2025.
  • Africa spent approximately $35 billion on food imports in 2016 and if left unchecked, the continent’s food import bill is expected to surge to $110 billion by 2025. Meanwhile, the continent is home to 50 percent of the world’s cultivatable land and has vast unexploited water resources and various agro-ecological zones.
  • Africa’s agribusiness sector is projected to reach $1 trillion in 2025, supported by a rapidly growing middle-income class and continental programs in support of agro-industrialization. The establishment of the AfCFTA could support Africa’s agri-business, create new regional markets for farmers and enhance agro-value chains while helping to replace the need for imports.

Poverty and food insecurity are intrinsically linked, meaning solving it is, in fact, a multi-layered process, involving multiple actors, coming from various perspectives. In the century the Foundation has been at the forefront of solving the food security issue globally, we have embraced the complexity and taken calculated steps to provide solutions. Some of those solutions—like our support for the researchers and systems that created the Green Revolution, a movement that helped pull nearly 1 billion people from the brink of famine primarily in Asia and Latin America—are well-known. Others are more discreet. But there are common themes running through this work over the past century, such as:

  • The need for dialogue among key players in the sector, from governments to institutions and development organizations, including farming communities. This will prevent replication of efforts and waste of resources so that smart goals are set, achieved efficiently, but especially effectively.
  • The need for partnerships, so that actors complement each other’s strengths on this journey. As that old saying goes, if you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together. One way this has taken shape in Africa is through the Foundation’s seeding ground-breaking institutions and partnership such as the Alliance for a Green revolution in Africa (AGRA), Partnership for Inclusive Agricultural Transformation in Africa (PIATA), Leadership for Agriculture (L4Ag) etc., whose performances will also be closely examined at AGRF, as conduits towards Africa’s green revolution.
  • The need for political will and investment. This cannot be overstated, because, without an enabling environment, the cycle will only continue.

None of this will bear fruit if we do not closely review Africa’s state capability when it comes to agriculture, which I will speak to at AGRF. More often than not poverty is linked to political instability and power struggles, and food insecurity is just one outcome. Even where concrete sector plans exist, lack of goodwill means no implementation or follow through. Additionally, the state usually suffers from lack of capacity (both in terms of human and monetary resource), lack of adequate skills for implementation, lack of relevant data with which to make informed decisions, and poor infrastructure, among a long list of challenges. Ministers of finance and agriculture do not converge adequately so as to move from the same page, and often country plans are isolated from regional economic blocs and institutions that have the capacity and clout to invest and partner with them.

Food insecurity exists when people lack sustainable physical or economic access to enough safe and nutritious food for a healthy and productive life.

As we continue to work toward solving this issue, in October of this year we will convene Africa’s key trade players in Lagos, Nigeria, at our bi-annual Africa convening. It will be co-hosted in partnership with the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UN ECA) and it’s African Trade Policy Center (ATPC). Together with representatives from across the trade divide, we will look at how we can accelerate the gains of the Continental Free Trade Area agreement (AfCFTA), signed in March of this year in Rwanda.

A key aspect of the convening will be to encourage participation and ownership of the AfCFTA objectives and to examine how intra-regional trade can be an enabler for agriculture transformation. In other words: How do we move from a signed AfCFTA to real action and implementation?

My vision for food and agriculture in Africa remains unchanged—that the continent becomes an economic powerhouse in the global agricultural marketplace. That one day African governments and regional organizations will enforce their full mandate and take responsibility to protect and empower their citizens—protect them from unnecessary cycles of food insecurity and failed livelihoods that can be prevented by better planning and reinvestments in systems. That leaders empower Africans with knowledge and skills—from basic education to tools of trade—and enable all Africans to thrive via agriculture. That nations and leaders use the tools of data and research, infrastructure, financial products, and resilience that feed human progress and economic growth.

And that young people—women and men equally—have the ability to see and seize opportunities in the sector, build prosperity for themselves and their communities, and propel our continent into the future.

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