Long-term investments in agriculture and a focus on helping smallholder farmers with existing tools are crucial for avoiding another food crisis on the scale of that seen in the Horn of Africa, argues Sam Dryden, programme director for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
There are success stories. A two-step programme put in place by Oxfam America, and supported by the Gates Foundation, helped to tackle Ethiopia's 2008 famine caused by rocketing global food prices. The programme provided immediate food assistance to farmers at highest risk, followed by cash-for-work projects — building dams and roads, for example — to help smallholder farmers develop resilience to future droughts. As a result, many farm families survived this year's drought without food assistance, says Dryden.
In Ghana, the agriculture sector is growing at more than five per cent a year, and hunger dropped by 75 per cent between 1990 and 2004 as a result of greater agricultural investments. African governments who have prioritised agricultural development with the right policies are seeing real progress against hunger and poverty.
More resilient crops are helping too. Drought-tolerant maize varieties are already benefitting two million smallholder farmers in Africa, with yields projected to increase by 30 per cent by 2016.
International donors and African governments must support initiatives that supply farmers with good seeds, tools and reliable markets to boost resilience to extreme weather, writes Dryden. They save lives, and save money in the long-term — emergency relief costs an estimated seven times more than prevention.