27 September 2012

Africa: Disparate Partners Find Promise in Africa's Agriculture

Photo: PHOTOESSAY: The African Green Revolution Forum

The African Green Revolution Forum (AGRF) 2012 aims to develop concrete action plans for developing Africa's agricultural sector and hopes to put smallholder farmers at the center of the conversation. A teenager in Cote d'Ivoire grills corn.

Arusha — With the world's population climbing steadily, crops withering around the globe and weather patterns wrecking havoc on growing seasons, the world has a pressing problem on its hands: food security.

And no single group has found a solution.

It's a daunting situation. But in an increasingly common mix of disparate groups uniting around addressing global challenges, governments, public sector organizations and private businesses have converged on the northern Tanzanian town of Arusha for the African Green Revolution Forum.

The event brings together leaders from all three sectors to tackle global food insecurity, primarily by jumpstarting Africa's agriculture sector through support for smallholder farmers, who grow an estimated 80 percent of Africa's food. Putting them at the center of the agenda and incentivizing private investors to take an interest in local markets are among the forum's ambitious goals.

Daniel Gad, the managing director for Ethiopia-based Omega Farms, says farmers with small plots of land are eager to embrace new models, including public-private partnerships. "Agricultural innovations are unbelievably easy for smallholder farmers to absorb," he says. "They're willing to participate, and they're willing to engage."

The continent also has sizable untapped agricultural potential. Africa accounts for more than half of the world's uncultivated, arable land, making it a key breadbasket for future generations, experts say.

At the same time, existing agricultural methods could be improved, panelists and presenters say. Crop yields have stalled at only one-third of those produced by farmers in other developing countries. But simple interventions, such as doubling fertilizer use from three to six percent, could increase agricultural production by 50 percent.

It is into this environment that the public and private actors of the Agra forum hope to plant the seeds, quite literally, of the future.

But despite agreement on a common mission – to tackle global food insecurity through Africa's smallholder farmers – joining forces isn't always easy, according to a panel representing all three groups.

Salum Shamte, of the Southern African Confederation of Agricultural Unions, says uniting independent actors and asking them to change their methods to accommodate small-scale agriculture can be difficult.

"This is a partnership of different partners who have been working individually," Shamte says. "The challenge we are facing is changing the way people are doing business to address the needs of the farmers, and it's one of the areas we need to work a lot more on."

Gad, of Omega Farms, describes the relationship as "unnatural" in the initial stages. He says the private sector focus on profits and its intolerance for delays and poor decision-making creates a "tension" with the other sectors.

But as with any working relationship, he says flexibility and a willingness to change have already led to progress.

"What is most fascinating now is that the public sector is...becoming more effective, more focused, more willing to take risks and make decisions in a short time frame so that results can be achieved," Gad says.

Shamte agrees that all parties must change if smallholder farmers are to see any benefits of current initiatives. He says there is little data on Africa's two million smallholder farmers

"Who are they? Where are they? We have to give these answers to private companies and the government in order to engage them," he says.

Jorgen Haslestad, president of agricultural product supplier Yara International ASA, is confident that the Arusha conference's emphasis on encouraging dialogue between government, nonprofit and private sector actors is a successful one.

" If you were to ask an African farmer [about the conference], he would probably say: 'So what? This is words, this is speeches, but nothing is new.' But I think this time something is new," he says.

"We are here creating a meeting place for collaboration and renewed efforts to bring about sustainable agricultural change."

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