By Eleanor Hasenbeck
This article is a part of the University of Missouri's Ag Journalism program's coverage of the 2017 World Food Prize.
DES MOINES, Iowa — In Africa’s growing cities, demand for more diverse and nutritious food is expected to triple within the next 20 years. Yet in Africa’s rural areas, which are home to some of the most underused farmland in the world, farmers growing crops on small plots can barely produce enough food to feed themselves. Globally, for the first time in a decade of decline, there was a 4.5 percent increase in daily hunger in the last year.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations identified these problems, among many others, in its State of Food and Agriculture, an annual report released earlier this month. The 160-page SOFA details the agencies’ priorities for the coming year. At the Borlaug Dialogue International Symposium, government officials, industry leaders and farmers discussed key problems identified in the report.
Conflict, climate change impact food security
Conflict in the continent drives food insecurity. According to another FAO report, more than half of food-insecure people live in countries with ongoing violence and more than 75 percent of the world’s chronically malnourished children live in conflict-affected regions. In Nigeria, violence almost completely wiped out farming in the state of Borno in the late 2000s. Boko Haram militants burned crops and forced farmers to flee for their lives.
At the same time, smallholder farmers are losing crops to more powerful storms and more frequent droughts due to a changing climate. According to Agnes Kalibata, president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution and former Minister of Agriculture and Animal Resources in Rwanda, of the 850 million people going hungry, 500 million are hungry due to conflict and the remaining 350 million are impacted by climate change.
“We can do something about it,” Kalibata said. “Whether it is the wars, the displacement, even climate change. We need to do more.”
Solutions: creating opportunities via infrastructure and policy
Youth in Africa pose both a risk and solution. In its current state, the African agricultural system isn’t equipped to deal with the 100-million-person rise in population ages 15 to 24, with most of that growth in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the FAO. Without growth in service and industry in both rural areas and African cities, these youth will have few opportunities for success.
“In many of those countries there’s pressure on the land because of population growth and climate change,” said the Rev. David Beckman, president of both the Alliance to End Hunger and Bread for the World. “You have this big bulge of young people coming of age, and there is no place for them to go. If they stay where they are, they’re not going to live even as well as their parents, and so they are going to be pushed to move someplace.”
With no option but migration, they are more likely to move to cities, transforming the rural poor to the urban poor.
Another element of the problem is the continent’s lack of infrastructure. Many rural, smallholder farmers walk or bike to markets. There are few rural roads and electrical power grids. Akinwumi Ayodeji Adesina, president of the African Development Bank and 2017 World Food Prize Laureate, said 645 million Africans don’t have access to electricity. Without power, Africa’s ability to process and store food is limited. A lack of refrigerated transportation systems eliminates rural farmers’ ability to get fresh fruit, vegetables, meat and dairy to urban markets. Basic, non-refrigerated grain storage is a struggle for smallholder farmers. In many sub-Saharan African homes, maize is stored in bags in homes or sheds. The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center estimates that 20 to 30 percent of the region’s maize crop is lost to pests during storage.
Giving these farmers better access to basic technology, such as agricultural extension education and hybrid seeds, could improve their productivity immensely. Mara Sovey Downing, president of the John Deere Foundation, said exposure to John Deere’s mobile training unit, a box truck that brings agricultural education to rural communities, improved yields four-fold on Ghana and Kenya farms. Mobile phones provide an immense opportunity for agricultural extension and democratizing access to knowledge.
“The most important tool in the hand of a farmer today is the mobile phone,” Adesina said. “With it, they will find out information on markets. They will know about weather. They will be able to access finance. They will be able to get access to nutrition for mothers.”
Kalibata urged more policies to allow private companies to play a bigger role in Africa. Downing said that mechanizing African farms in the same manner as the United States isn’t feasible because of trade policy. Basic parts such as oil filters and tires can take six months to cross state borders. Smallholder farmers can’t afford this equipment, according to the FAO, and in the near-impossible event that they could, the knowledge of upkeep and repair just isn’t there.
Using what we know
A key to implementing solutions, Kalibata said, is partnering to applying the knowledge that governments, companies and non-profits already have.
“We [the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa] believe that between us, even in this room, we have enough knowledge,” Kalibata said. “We have enough models. We have enough technology and probably enough resources. If we put it together in the right way, we can be transformative.”