African smallholders ‘need tech to spur food security’

Smallholder farmer prepares maize plot
Copyright: Flickr/CIMMYT

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  • Africa has only five per cent of land under irrigation, resulting in low yields
  • Governments should adopt policies that can help farmers adapt to climate change
  • Using technologies that could increase nutritional values of crops is also vital

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[ADDIS ABABA] African countries need to help smallholder farmers access technologies that will enable them increase farm yields, achieve resilience and better nutrition to address poverty, food security as well as economic growth, a conference has heard.  
Kanayo Nwanze, president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development, says this will only be possible through a paradigm shift that enables smallholder farmers, particularly in rural areas, to produce enough to feed themselves and to sell.
Such technologies are simple conventional ones —  including irrigation, improved seed varieties, use of fertilisers and provision of infrastructure such as good rural feeder roads — that have been tested elsewhere, he told Building Resilience For Food and Nutrition Security conference organised by the US-headquartered International Food Research Institute (IFPRI) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, this week (15-17 May).

“Without policies for rural transformation and basic technologies for smallholder farmers Africa’s agriculture will continue to underperform.”

Kanayo Nwanze, International Fund for Agricultural Development

Nwanze says the era when large multinational organisations were considered as the only solution to successful agricultural production in the developing world, Africa included, has passed.
“Africa’s agriculture has continued to underperform because it is not giving farmers enough yield  to feed themselves and get more to take to the market,” he told a press conference.
“In Africa only five per cent of land is under irrigation while Asia has 60 per cent of its agricultural land under irrigation. The continent is not using improved seed varieties and only realises 40 per cent of its overall potential in yields.”
According to Nwanze, these problems call for African governments to put in place the right policies, including private sector involvement without which no country will make headway in development.
“Without policies for rural transformation and basic technologies for smallholder farmers Africa’s agriculture will continue to underperform,” he said. “You call it subsistence because farmers can’t produce enough.”
But Nwanze noted some progress, including some African countries such as Ethiopia, Niger, Rwanda and Uganda that are now investing over ten per cent of their national wealth in agriculture in line with the Maputo declaration of 2003.
Shenggen Fan, IFPRI’s director-general, said that food production is being affected by climate change. He therefore called for agricultural technologies that can withstand climate change impacts such as prolonged droughts and nutritional insecurity.
“New technologies should give higher yields but that is not enough. Newer technologies should also build calories, stress tolerances against drought and heat,” Fan said, noting that they should be resilient to climate change.  
Such technologies, Fan adds, should help reduce water and energy use. For instance, the International Rice Institutes is developing a rice variety — called C4 — that can help increase yields but also reduce carbon emissions.
Fan says that adding nutritional value of crops is vital and this can be achieved through technologies such as biofortification as has been done for sweet potato in Mozambique and Uganda to help Vitamin A-deficient children improve their sights.
Ertharin Cousin, the executive director of the United Nations World Food Programme, explains that there are tools, but what is lacking is political will to help transform and make agriculture more productive, resilient to climate change and increase food nutritional security.

This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's Sub-Saharan Africa desk.