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Notable Writings

"The Center of World Poverty"

By K.Y.Amoako

ADDIS ABEBA - According to World Bank projections, by 2020 Africa will have a food shortage of 250 million tons. If we do not take concerted steps to reverse the negative trends now, the global center of poverty will increasingly be rural Africa.

Africa's food security situation is easily summed up - the region is poor. In the analysis of the UN Economic Commission for Africa, half of Sub-Saharan Africa, including two-thirds of rural Africa, lives in poverty.

It is caught in a classic nexus of food insecurity, with declining but still high population growth and a rapidly deteriorating environment, which combined with global warming could well expose Africa to quicker cycles of environmental calamity.

While conflicts have declined in other parts of the world, they have not in Africa. Research by the International Food Policy Research Institute shows that, on average, countries in conflict produce 12.4 percent less food per capita in war years than during peacetime.

Advisors to policymakers have failed to make a persuasive political case for agricultural development. Most top government leaders still do not see the nexus of agriculture, environment and population as central to development.

The case of Nigeria, the continent's most populous country, is instructive. Nigeria's head of state, Olusegun Obasanjo, in an unusual act of leadership, wants to place agriculture at the center of his country's development agenda. Agriculture comprises 32 percent of Nigeria's gross domestic product (GDP) and employs 70 percent of the working population.

A successful farmer, Obasanjo knows there is considerable potential for agriculture in his country. But much of Nigeria's policy intelligentsia is arguing that declining terms of trade for agriculture make investment in the sector, beyond basic food security, a risky business.

The facts indicate otherwise. Liberalization and better agricultural policies in most African countries seem to be turning things around. Mozambique recorded nine-percent growth in agriculture in recent years. Uganda's food production, with the stimulus of liberalized policies, grew by nearly 14 percent last year. And the change in the monetary parity has made a major difference to agriculture in countries like Burkina Faso, where crop and livestock production are moving ahead smartly.

And yet the outlook for agricultural research is not good, as it was a growth industry in the 1960s and 1970s, but not since. Declining world cereal prices created complacency as a drop in real prices for Africa's agricultural commodities cooled enthusiasm for agriculture-led growth strategies. The seemingly slow progress towards a green revolution for Africa caused fatigue and the belief spread that extensive market reforms would somehow solve Africa's problems without further attention from public authorities.

These perceptions are seriously misguided. The case for investment in agricultural research in Africa is quite strong.

Consistently high yields achieved at research stations and demonstration plots suggest that agricultural research could contribute greatly to agricultural growth and development. At 37 percent, the median internal rate of return on agricultural research spending in Africa should spur higher levels of investment in research, not discourage it. Most significantly, where agricultural policy reforms have been taken, farmers have been quick to respond to positive incentives, contrary to old theories of the backward rising supply curve in African agriculture.

Studies by the UN Institute for Natural Resources in Africa (INRA) show that a combination of good policies, high-yield seeds and enriched soils could double rice and wheat yields in Africa, triple sorghum yields, and quadruple maize yields.

What to do?

First, the considerable gap between available knowledge and its application by the agricultural community must be bridged. In the past, widespread on-farm replication of the high yields and returns achieved at research stations and demonstration plots has been problematic. But in the new information age, this could be overcome with research supported by information and communications technology-enhanced extension and education services.

Then soil and water resource management need a major overhaul. As the UN Institute for Natural Resources in Africa (INRA) warns, the green revolution will be impossible unless soil quality is improved. According to the institute 72 percent of the Sub-Saharan African cropland and 31 percent of its pastureland are degraded, contributing to enormous losses in output.

Third, Africa must modernize its physical infrastructure, including all modes of transport, telecommunications and power utilities, and reform and strengthen the institutions supporting agriculture. At present, physical and institutional infrastructures and agriculture support services have deteriorated, compounding the problem of high transaction and transport costs associated with complex regulatory frameworks.

Fourth, we must create larger and open markets on the continent and have markets opened to us overseas.

Fifth, a more diversified production base is required. Non-indigenous cereals and horticulture have huge potential in Africa, as countries such as Zimbabwe and Kenya have shown. Greater emphasis could be placed on Africa's long-neglected traditional crops such as cassava, millet and a wide variety of food and medicinal plants. Apart from their importance to food security and biodiversity, these crops also offer commercial possibilities.

To do this will require massive investment and taking full advantage of new technologies, but it must be done. The alternative may be starvation.

(Copyright IPS)

*K.Y. Amoako is Executive Secretary, Economic Commission for Africa (ECA, website and United Nations Under-Secretary-General.

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