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African Agriculture Coming Of Age

Agrowing African food sector can yield private sector returns on the back of government support, said a report on Oct. 26, which also said that a global grain reserve may be needed to protect consumers from price spikes.

Local initiatives aiming for an African equivalent of the Green Revolution, which swept developing countries in the 1970s and 1980s, needed co-ordination, the report added.

For example an African Union (AU) strategy aimed to drive economic development through investment in agriculture at a tenth of national budgets, given new impetus by a 2008 food crisis which prompted $20-billion aid for agriculture.

“It’s a focus on the great and proven potential of African agriculture,” said Imperial College London’s Gordon Conway, chair of a panel of authors of the report titled “Africa and Europe: Partnerships for Agricultural Development.”

“We can continue to parachute in sacks of grain, but it’s much better to focus on making sure the seeds and fertilizers are present in the hands of the dealers in the villages.

“We are in a period of optimism about the prospects for Africa and African agriculture,” the report concluded.

The Green Revolution in Mexico, India and elsewhere met large increases in yields through steps such as investment in irrigation, fertilizers and high-yielding crops.

In Africa cereal yields were as little as one-third those in developed countries, said Lindiwe Majele Sibanda, another author, but she pointed to successes for example in Nigerian cassava and of the adoption of higher-yielding rice varieties.

“Africa is now organized and ready for business,” she said.

The AU initiative aimed to achieve six per cent annual growth in farm output by 2015 compared with three per cent annually over the past decade. The report cited estimates that the sector may be worth $800 billion by 2030 compared with $280 billion now.

It intended to galvanize European private and public sector investment, following similar investment in African farmland and businesses by large emerging economies including China.

Private sector investment would not overturn problems of malnutrition, however, where 200 million Africans are underfed and five million die annually from hunger. That required public support, possibly including a global grain reserve to ease food price spikes which hurt the poor more, the report said.

“Food price spikes, particularly the one in 2007-08, had a devastating impact on African consumers. Speculators drive these spikes higher than they would otherwise be,” said Conway.

“These spikes need some form of physical grain reserve to moderate them,” he added, saying that he was not advocating a government takeover of commodity markets.

African Smallholder Farmers Need Subsidies To Survive

Malawian President Bingu wa Mutharika, who is also African Union chairman, said Oct. 28 that Africa should fight for subsidies for its poor farmers so as to achieve food security on the continent.

The World Bank and the IMF have opposed agricultural subsidies for poor African farmers because of the high costs associated with the initiative.

“Africa should stand up and fight for subsidies for poor farmers … the new partnership with the donor community should be based on strengthening the subsidies for African smallholder farmers, especially women,” wa Mutharika told a meeting of African agriculture ministers.

“There is no way an African farmer can survive without subsidies … such subsidies would be directed towards the purchase of fertilizers, seeds, pesticides, tractors, and irrigation equipment, extension services and marketing,” he added.

Wa Mutharika said Africa currently spends almost $22 billion annually on importing food and exports food worth $14 billion.

“Invariably, Africa is a net importer of food … The impact of all this is felt most by the 400 million people who live on less than $1 a day and who cannot afford to buy food to eat,” he said.

Malawi’s own seed and fertilizer subsidy program has helped its farmers achieve five consecutive bumper harvests that have driven economic growth averaging seven per cent a year over the past four years.

The government relies on foreign donors to fund about 40 per cent of its budget.

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