Africa: An Untapped Potential for Global Agriculture

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By Janeen Madan

Global agricultural production has increased by 145 percent since 1960, but production in Africa has fallen by 10 percent. While 70 percent of Africa’s population is engaged in agriculture, 250 million people remain undernourished, an increase of 100 million since 1990.

Calestous Juma argues that not only can Africa feed itself within a generation, but it can also become a major exporter of food. (Photo credit: Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs)

But despite this bleak picture, The New Harvest: Agricultural Innovation in Africa, a book by Dr. Calestous Juma, professor at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, suggests there is tremendous potential to reverse these trends.

Juma argues that not only can Africa feed itself within a generation, but it can also become a major exporter of food, ending its reliance on food aid.

Africa presents an untapped potential for the future of global agriculture. It is the only continent where arable land is available for agricultural expansion. “Africa has abundant arable land and labor which, with an agreed common approach and sound policies, could translate into greater production, incomes and food security,” according to Juma.

The book’s recommendations call for increased investments in on-farm and off-farm infrastructure. By building new roads, improving storage and processing facilities, training scientists, expanding irrigation systems, developing new breeds that are better suited to local conditions, and harnessing solar energy, the continent can meet the food security needs of its growing population. According to Juma, “You can modernize agriculture in an area by simply building roads, so that you can send in seed and move out produce.”

Juma presented the key findings of his book to leaders of several East African nations at an informal summit on food security and climate change in Arusha, Tanzania. Earlier this year, the book’s recommendations were also adopted by the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), Africa’s largest trading block.

The book strikes a balance between the often-opposing sides of the agricultural development debate. One side is dominated by those promoting investments in biotechnology and intensive irrigation systems, while others argue that small-scale farmers have much to lose from an approach, often dominated by large multinational corporations. The book emphasizes the central role that small-scale farmers will play in the future of African agriculture. Greater investments will help improve food security, “provided the continent can focus on supporting small-scale farmers to help meet national and regional demand for food,” says Juma.

But above all, there is an urgent need for greater political will – African leaders must integrate agricultural issues at every level of decision-making, from transportation and communication planning to education policies. In an interview with the BBC, Professor Juma said it is important for African leaders to recognize that “agriculture and economy for Africa are one and the same.”

For some African countries, government investments in agriculture have remained as low as 4 percent of GDP. But recent commitments by some governments indicate change. In Rwanda, for example, investment in agriculture increased by 30 percent between 2007 and 2009, and in Sierra Leone investment in agriculture has risen from 1.6 percent of the budget to 9.9 percent in 2010.

And the international donor community must also live up to its commitments by supporting the millions of small-scale farmers in Africa who depend on agriculture for their food and income.

To learn more about environmentally sustainable innovations in agriculture, see the forthcoming State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet.

Janeen Madan is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

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