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[NAIROBI] Food production in Sub-Saharan Africa grew in 2008 for the first time in decades, according to a new report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

The 3.5 per cent increase — higher than the two per cent rise in population — was driven in part by increased use of technology, says the report, which was written for a forum of senior experts on food production meeting in Rome this week (12–13 October) ahead of November's World Summit on Food Security.

Other factors behind the increase include positive changes in national policies for agriculture and higher food prices which have the effect of stimulating growth, the report says.

"Increased research in agriculture has led to improved crop varieties more suited to specific African regions, and this has had a direct impact on yields," says Hilary Clarke, spokesperson for the FAO.

"The coming of the high yielding, drought resistant New Rice for Africa (NERICA), for example, has led to higher rice production in West Africa and Uganda," she adds.

Daniel M'Reri, an agricultural expert with Sumitomo Corporation in Nairobi, Kenya, says improvements in farming methods by smallholder farmers are also paying off. For instance, by adopting new irrigation methods, including water conserving drip irrigation, farmers are becoming less vulnerable to erratic rainfall.

M'Reri adds: "Research into drought resistant and fast maturing crops has led new varieties of crops such as sorghum."

But the report also highlights the challenges for Africa in its use of science and technology. It says "determined action" is needed in technological innovation, adding that poor transfer of agricultural technologies to farmers has led to a low uptake of irrigation, fertilisers, pesticides and superior seeds.

"Governments and donors need to fund research in agriculture more," says M'Reri.

Africa must also make better use of its land and water if growth is to be sustained or even boosted on a continent which struggles with food deficiency, according to the report.

It recommends more extensive farming of the Guinea Savannah region in particular. Currently, only ten per cent of this 600 million hectare zone is farmed but more extensive farming would require massive investment in infrastructure and technology.

The report stresses that Africa must be helped to cushion itself from the effects of climate change which, in a continent heavily dependent on rain-fed agriculture, could destroy up to 50 per cent of yields in some countries.

Link to full report [1.82MB]