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Ahmed Dirie says African development initiatives need to be practical, step-wise, and draw on positive experiences in Asian nations.

Renewed interest in Africa's development is gaining momentum and various major initiatives are underway. These include UK prime minister Tony Blair's Commission for Africa, last weekend's 'Live8' concerts, and talks at this week's G8 summit, in which leaders of the world's eight most industrialised nations are expected to agreenew aid packages for Africa.

Through these and other activities, 2005 has been identified as the year for African development. This focus is long overdue. It is essential therefore that Africa seizes this opportunity.

Those creating action plans for African development have identified priority sectors, such as health, education, food security and scientific capacity building.

But we have heard less about the concrete step-by-step measures that will be needed to achieve the goals being set.

Addressing this is essential. If the present initiatives are not translated into tangible outputs, we may see our efforts wasted, and the African continent could continue to lie in neglect.

As an African scientist with experience of international agricultural development both in Africa and Asia, I recommend the following.

First, we must take no shortcuts in helping Africa move along the classic development path, from an agricultural, to an industrial, and finally a knowledge-based society.

Although, some nations, such as Singapore, have skipped some of these steps, they are exceptions rather than the rule. If African nations miss a step on this ladder, it could cause problems in the future.

Second, we must look to Asian countries that are rapidly maturing into knowledge-based societies and employ the models that have succeeded there. Some of the Asian 'tigers' such as South Korea took just 30 or 40 years to achieve a high degree of development. The sad part for Africa, it that it is taking more than 300 years to even reach food self-sufficiency.

Asian countries have overcome food shortages — a problem that continues to affect Africa — through mass education, adopting appropriate technologies, and developing entrepreneurial societies.

Indonesia, for instance, overcame rice shortages by training agricultural scientists and 'extension officers', who transfer scientific knowledge to farmers. International agricultural research centres and universities developed improved rice varieties, and millions of rice farmers attended 'farmer field schools', where they learnt to increase crop yields and profits by, for instance, reducing unnecessary pesticide use.

Today, India is one of the fast growing economies. This is partly because the Indian government encouraged the development of appropriate technologies early on. In contrast, agricultural development policies in Africa have focused on importing expensive machinery for commercial-level farms and have rarely prioritised adopting and developing appropriate technologies for basic food production.

In terms of entrepreneurial development, the success of Thailand’s baby corn industry, worth several million dollars, is worth mentioning. It is the result of a partnership between many parties including universities, private and public agencies, and farming communities.

Although baby corn was introduced to Thai farmers in an effort to improve nutrition, it generated extra income, and a viable export market emerged. The example demonstrates how important it is to develop agro-industry and ensure that farming is profitable.

If Africa can develop its agricultural industry, it will both solve its food shortage and jump-start its development in general.

A final point: it might be tempting to focus development initiatives on African nations that have already made some progress, as an incentive for their efforts and because success stories might be more achievable in these countries.

I have firsthand experience of international agricultural development centres defining agricultural research institutes in developing countries as strong or weak, and opting to partner the strong ones ― mainly to avoid wasting limited resources, but also for the sake of good publicity.

Undoubtedly, success stories could lead to more investment and interest in Africa. But we should not be selective and neglect weaker African economies for political or publicity reasons.

Ahmed Dirie is a life scientist and freelance writer based in San Jose, California, United States.