Harnessing Innovation for African Agriculture and Food Systems

ID-100207879In November 2013, the African Union Commission (AUC) and Kofi Annan Foundation, with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, convened a group of senior African leaders and experts in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to discuss actions that could be taken to “sustain the momentum of the many positive transformations taking place in African agriculture and food systems”. A Chairs’ Summary of the high-level dialogue, “Harnessing Innovation for African Agriculture and Food Systems:  Meeting the Challenges and Designing for the 21st Century,” was recently released. The report details the discussions of the meeting, looking at some of the past successes, future challenges and opportunities for action.

The meeting, held in support of the 2014 Year of Agriculture and Food Security in Africa and the 10th anniversary of the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP), noted the recent change in language used to describe African agriculture, turning to one of potential and transformation. Agriculture and farming businesses can not only play a significant role in the food security of Africans and others in the world but can be a drivers of development, poverty reduction, growth in infrastructure and address social issues such as gender inequality and youth unemployment.

Significant forces of change were identified as smallholder farmers and the private sector, while greater coordination within and beyond the continent, and between sectors, and “scaling, amplifying and transferring” of successes in a way that reflects regional differences were seen to be key to the transformation of the sector.

Some of the challenges Africa faces were, in this meeting, seen also as opportunities. For example, rapid urbanisation and shifting diets mean increased demand for food, and some 60% of the continent’s food needs arise from people in urban centres, but this is also an opportunity to build better urban to rural links and food supply chains, benefiting those in towns and cities but bringing much needed investment capital to rural areas.

Several countries are already seeing significant growth in the agricultural sector, driving reductions in hunger. While engagement of the private sector is seen as a key part of this growth, visionary and determined leadership is driving this process, and good governance and a strong enabling environment developed through the public sector were identified as being needed to “resolve bottlenecks, maintain momentum and optimise for the greatest benefit to all layers in the economy and society”. Governments’ actions to aid the development and transformation of the agricultural sector include incentivising investment, providing regulation, coordinating across sectors and providing safety nets for the most vulnerable.

Enabling smallholder farmers, who constitute the majority of farmers in Africa, to increase productivity was identified as a major goal aided by the delivery of better data, business skills training and through farmer organisations. One of the biggest challenges, highlighted in the report, is that of African youth unemployment and growing youth populations, and an urgent need is to create meaningful employment for youth in agriculture, through capitalising on their technological and creative skills and through the modernisation of the farming sector.

The role of markets in Africa is growing and investment from global markets is increasing. One thing underemphasised in the dialogue was ways of making these markets work for small-scale rural farmers who may face the risk of being outcompeted in a more globalised market place.

The power of business was emphasised throughout the report as was the power of science and technology and expansion of access to better data and information. Specific actions recorded that leaders can take to drive this transformation include:

  • Establish metrics to measure performance and achievements
  • Improve information and data availability and access
  • Amplify the voices of African leaders
  • Expand private sector engagement and investment
  • Engage Africa’s youth in agricultural entrepreneurship
  • Promote regional and subregional cooperation

While the meeting and outcomes were directed at high level policy makers and leaders, recommendations for action seem to have little relevance to farmers on the ground and there is a fear that they will be left out of this transformation, development and modernisation process. Although identified as key drivers of change in the sector, perhaps their voices or needs could have been more prominent throughout discussions. Very little mention was also given to protecting the environmental resource base on which agriculture depends, something that in the developed world we failed to consider in the transformation of societies from agricultural to industrial to service-based, to our detriment. That said, no transformation can occur without strong-minded, committed and visionary leaders, which this report and meeting encourage and inspire.

 

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