Africa could feed itself, says development expert

Can Africa start feeding itself in a generation? Copyright: Flickr/gbaku

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Africa could feed itself within a generation through the application of science-based techniques to agricultural production, according to the editor of a report on how to do this, which will be discussed by East African heads of state today.

The continent has a window of opportunity in which to take decisions to increase food production that would enable it to feed itself, said the report, put together by a 20-member board under the Agricultural Innovation in Africa project, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The report, ‘New Harvest: Agricultural Innovation in Africa’, sounds a note of optimism amidst warnings about the threats to African agriculture against a background of global warming and soaring population.

Co-ordinated by Calestous Juma, professor of the practice of international development at Harvard University, United States, its core message is that the continent currently has a critical mass of both leaders who are sympathetic to the transformational potential of science and technology, and the expertise needed to make that transformation happen. 

The report outlines how science and technology can be integrated into agricultural development discussions and strategies.

It cites success stories such as that of Malawi — where imports of improved seed and provision of subsidised fertiliser doubled the country’s maize yields and enabled it to export maize in just two years — and argues that such approaches could be scaled up across the continent to improve agricultural output.

"Africa now has access to a large body of scientific knowledge, both on the continent and from elsewhere, countries are building regional markets within Africa and there is a new generation of leaders who are willing to use science and innovation and to invest into agriculture, which all guide our optimism," Juma told SciDev.Net.

He said that outside observers often fail to notice the progress that African policymakers and leaders have been making in embracing knowledge-based improvements in agriculture and the economy.

"Focusing simply on how much money goes to research and development is missing an important shift towards more regional knowledge-sharing and a greater willingness to embrace science and technology," he said.  

The presidents of Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda were due to consider the report today at a retreat on food security and climate change, organised ahead of the 12th Ordinary Summit of the Heads of State of the East African Community.

Experts in African food security gave the report a cautious welcome.

Bruce Campbell, head of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research’s (CGIAR) programme on climate change, agriculture and food security, said: "While Juma’s book is optimistic, one needs to recognise that there are tremendous challenges that are not very simple to solve".

Mark Rosegrant, director of International Food Policy Research Institute’s environment and production technology division, said: "I think this report is significant because he’s [Juma] pulled the evidence in a very integrated fashion. He’s got the grasp of social sciences and economics as well as the straight science."

Rosegrant highlighted South Africa, which "has generally done better than others in long-term investment", and Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda, which "have longer term and significant investments in agricultural research and seem to be sustaining those and reforming that area.

"In the north, Morocco is doing very well in terms of research and green and sustainable policy structures — Morocco could potentially be one of the big successes of the future." But he added: "The goals should be to grow what they do best and generate incomes, not necessarily to be self-sufficient in food production".

And Philip Thornton, a senior scientist at International Livestock Research Institute in Kenya, who led a recent study that concluded global warming could spell a catastrophe for Africa’s agriculture, warned that "there are many [climate change] factors that are not under Africa’s control".

These will work in the opposite direction to improvements in yields and new crop varieties, he said. "I was a little surprised when reading the press release about the report as it doesn’t make much mention of climate change."

Link to selected chapters from the report