Agriculture is now experiencing an unprecedented upward growth curve across East Africa, the result of major collaborative initiatives between private and public sector organisations that are driving innovation in the sector.
Over the past few years, young graduates have been venturing into the sector and abandoning traditionally glorified professions such as medicine and law. The concept of agribusiness, which is relatively new across the region to young entrepreneurs, is fast catching fire.
This also points to the success of regional and international agricultural stakeholders, who have been holding interactive forums to examine critical issues concerning agriculture and devising ways of improving competitiveness in the sector.
The major issues dominating such meetings have included harmonisation of standards, sharing of technical and best practices, as well as the development of infrastructure. Promotion of international and regional trade and exports has also taken centre-stage.
The East African Farmers Federation (EAFF), the umbrella body linking farmers across the EAC region, supports collaborative programmes within the context of regional integration. The programmes also promote intraregional trade aimed at improving food security and the incomes of farmers across the region.
This year, Tanzania hosted agricultural experts from the world's leading partnership for agriculture research organisations, CGIAR. Their biannual board meeting was held in Dar es Salaam and hosted by the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA).
The meeting, which brought together the Consortium's Board and Director Generals of 15 international centres that make up the CGIAR Consortium, was held last month. The East African region was described as having a rich natural and human resource which, if managed well, could have the potential to make it the world's food basket.
Most of CGIAR's research-for-development activities take place in tropical developing countries, including Sub-Saharan Africa where a majority of countries are not self-sufficient in food despite agriculture being the backbone of the economies.
The CEO of CGIAR, Dr Frank Rijsberman, says that agriculture is crucial today more than ever before, particularly in the face of current climatic changes and increasing global population. "Sub-Saharan Africa is one of the most vulnerable regions where a majority of people are smallholder farmers who frequently face food insecurity and poverty," said Dr Rijsberman.
In Tanzania, CGIAR centres and research programmes carry out a wide range of activities in coordination with national and international partners.
Dr Nteranya Sanginga, Director General of IITA, says that the organisation has worked in Tanzania and sub-Saharan African for over 20 years supporting national research partners to increase production of staples such as banana,
cassava and soya beans. "Cassava is a very important food and cash crop for small-holder farmers; however, production of the crop has suffered a major blow from mosaic disease and brown streak disease," said Dr Nteranya. The research organisation has released tolerant cassava varieties that can give an acceptable yield to the farmers.
During the meeting in Dar es Salaam, Dr Nteranya said that the government of Tanzania was very supportive going by the heavy investment in the sector. This is aimed at reducing poverty, ensuring food security for its people and enhanced economic development.
The International Livestock and Research Institute (ILRI) has stations across the EAC partner states and works with both national and international partners to improve the dairy industry so as to reduce poverty and ensure food security.
The World Agroforestry Center (ICRAF) focuses on encouraging small-holder farmers to grow trees on their farms and reap the benefits of conserving soil as well as diversifying their source of income.
Collaboration ventures that are working towards improving food security in arid and semi-arid areas include the International Crop Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), which has especially been active in Kenya. Programmes to promote drought-tolerant crops such as pigeon peas and sorghum have been going on in Kenya's arid and semi-arid lands.
Maize is a staple food in many households across the region; as a result, there has been an increasing demand to develop a tolerant high yielding, drought, disease and pest-resistant variety. The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) has been working in close collaboration with both national and international stakeholders in the industry to improve the production of maize and wheat across the region.
The African Rice Center works on improving rice production. The high yielding, new rice varieties such as the highland rice NERICA, which requires less water to grow, have been developed with an aim of improving rice production across the region.
Efforts to improve the feeder roads that link rural farms with the main transport networks across the region and other
infrastructure projects have also served to boost the sector. Agribusiness has also benefitted from the increasing availability of cheap credit from banks and financial institutions.
Teachers, government workers and private-sector employees have been using loans from co-operative societies and financial institutions to venture into agriculture.
Harmonisation of Customs, levies and duties across the region has also made it easier to transport produce, enlarging the available market for farmers.
Unfortunately, the agricultural sector has sometimes suffered from a glut due to over-production. This is especially due
to speculative ventures and rumours of quick money. Recently, for instance, thousands of farmers in Kenya took to quail farming, quickly depressing prices and leading to huge losses by "speculator farmers."
With the expansion of university education, new collaborations are continuously springing up right across the region. There is little overall co-ordination of the collaborative ventures, but the boom in agriculture is giving rise to a new middle class of people who are ready to get their hands dirty.