Africa is rising. The 2010 Ibrahim Index of African Governance reveals some very good news: 40 out 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 show that the agricultural growth rate has become positive, a first in almost thirty years. Between 1990 and 2005, the proportion of people living on less than $1.25 per day declined from 58% to 51%. The proportion of undernourished people declined from 31% in 1990 to 26% by 2005-2007. The African Development Bank has published an upbeat African Economic Outlook that points to a bright future for the continent.
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 per day – nearly as many people as are living in the entire United States of America. The vast majority are smallholder farmers, about 70% of whom are women.
Africa’s average staple crop yield is still less than one ton per hectare, compared to a global average of 5 tons per hectare. For millions of farmers in Africa, accessing basic technologies to help them raise food production is a major challenge. Leaders have failed to urgently prioritize the challenges facing poor farmers in Africa. Leaders must act on their behalf.
Farmers should be able to at least feed their country’s population. In the USA, farmers represent only 1 % of the population, but they still feed the nation and generate enough surpluses to feed many more people around the world. Yet, in Africa, we see such shocking sights of farmers queuing for food aid. What a paradox! The 70% of our population working in agriculture cannot feed themselves, let alone the 30% that are not in agriculture. Many African countries still rely on food aid and the continent as a whole spends $25 billion 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, the political cost of inaction on hunger and poverty has been zero. Our 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 2007-2008, 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 are responding. For example, Mali is now spending 11% of its total budget on agriculture, Burkina Faso 15% and Ethiopia 17%.
But deeper changes are needed. Agriculture in Africa has for far too long been managed as a development program. Agriculture is a business and should be seen and supported as such. With 70% 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. Begging for food is not the way to ensure that right. The right to food is only truly meaningful when a nation can feed itself.
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. Access to improved seed and fertilizer and the knowledge to use them turned the tide. Malawi fed its 15 million people. It also exported 400,000 tons 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% in 2009 and national food security.
What has brought about these emerging agricultural revolutions? The answer is simple: political will and government support for farmers. When leaders do their part, African farmers will stand and deliver.
African farmers are no different from farmers in other parts of the world. Our farmers, the majority of whom are women, are hard working and entrepreneurial. What they need are comprehensive farm support policies that will allow them to produce more food to feed the continent.
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. When we are able to feed ourselves, our freedom will be meaningful. Only then will democracy and the right to food be truly meaningful for the 300 million of our people still living in extreme poverty.